How to say the right thing in tricky workplace conversations

This new book will help you prepare for the conversation well before it comes up.
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

When we asked David Glasgow, executive director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU Law, to tell us about a time when he heard a colleague try to discuss identity, diversity, or justice and miss the mark, he struggled—not because such occurrences are rare, he clarified, but because it happens all the time.

As he and his co-author, Kenji Yoshino, write in their forthcoming book, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, conversations about identity are becoming “inescapable.” In our recent interview, Glasgow said that people are talking about identity in every sphere of life—and especially at work. Glasgow hopes he and Yoshino’s book will equip professionals to say the right thing when topics of identity come up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You write about “conversational traps” that prevent us from saying the right thing. What are they?

We call the conversational traps “ADDAs”: avoid, deflect, deny, and attack.

Avoid can mean literally walking out of the room or it can mean just staying silent…and not contributing anything to the conversation or not saying what you really think. Deflect is changing the subject…[or] deflecting to your own good intentions…Deny is where you just reflexively dismiss whatever it is that the other person said…“You’re wrong, no questions asked.” And then attack is where you really make it personal: You sling insults at the other person or use epithets or sarcasm.

We’re trying to encourage…people to behave more reflectively in these conversations rather than reflexively. So, actually think about what the other person is sharing with you and try to process what you’re hearing with resilience and engage with the other person in a real way rather than doing that fight-or-flight response.

How do you build that resilience prior to even entering conversations?

We offer five strategies for building resilience…One really important foundational one is to adopt a growth mindset…[Psychologist Carol Dweck] distinguishes between a fixed mindset, where we think our abilities and our skills are innate, and if we’re not good at something, then we’re probably never going to be good at it, versus a mindset that’s oriented toward growth, [which says] if I’m not good at something, I can practice it and get better.

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Citing the psychologist Dolly Chugh, in this particular arena of diversity, equity, inclusion, people adopt a fixed mindset because the consequences of making an error seem so huge. If I make a mistake when I’m playing the piano, I don’t genuinely think that that makes me a terrible human being. Whereas if I make a mistake in this arena, we do tend to think, “Oh my gosh, I’ve just become racist or sexist or homophobic.” What we want to try to do is encourage people to carry over the same growth mindset that they apply in other areas of their life to this area as well. One technique is to just attach the word “yet” to the end of negative self-talk…“I just can't understand these pronouns…yet. But I can learn them and I can practice them and get better at them.”

What if you realize you’ve said the wrong thing? How can you apologize authentically?

We think every good apology contains what we call the four Rs: recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress.

Recognition is just acknowledging the harm, basically. So, a common way that people mess that up is by using if apologies—I’m sorry if I offended you or I’m sorry if you’re upset, where it kind of sounds like there wasn’t actually any harm…The problem is with the other person and their interpretation of it. The second is to take responsibility for it…Step number three is to communicate remorse. This doesn’t have to be anything over-the-top—it just has to be a genuine statement of contrition. Two common mistakes that people make here are either to underdo the remorse or overdo the remorse. So, we talk in the book about an example of the celebrity chef, Mario Batali, who issued an apology for pretty egregious acts of sexual harassment in a newsletter and then at the bottom of the newsletter, he put in a PS: here’s my recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls—which kind of made it like, okay, well you don’t really sound very remorseful.

Then redress is actually taking action to repair the harm. This is the idea that words are ultimately just words and so you have to demonstrate through your actions that you’re going to behave differently.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.