When people are deep in resistance
Question: “What do you do when people are deep in resistance?”
Answer: If you know they’re going to be in resistance when they come in, you start way before. You would talk to the leaders, and maybe some of your colleagues, so that you can get an idea of what you think the resistance is about. Is it a mandatory session? Those are more difficult, at least in my opinion.
You can try to warm up the participants before they come in by sending them some reflection questions. You might even say, “Thank you for attending the session, I know it’s mandatory and my intention is to make it engaging and meaningful, and to do that, could you think about these two or three questions?”
They could be questions like, “What are some things you all do to create a more inclusive environment, so all people feel valued, engaged in honest collaborative conversations?”, “How do you already keep learning to serve an increasingly diverse customer base that we’re here to help be successful?”, and “What are one or two situations or dilemmas that you noticed your colleagues sometimes have trouble reacting to?”
Even if they’re resistant, they might be willing to say, “Well, I’ve noticed this situation that happened with my colleagues…” or “What happens sometimes in teams here is…” The goal is to encourage some reflection about how we’re not perfect.
You could also ask them from zero to ten, “How inclusive is the work environment for the full breadth of our employees across identities, including race, age, years of experience, sexuality, gender identities, sex assigned at birth, disability status, religion, spirituality, and others? This might be too advanced, but you can still ask them. Some of these questions might help them if they’re triggered and feeling resistant.
Pre-reflection questions and a personal email from you outlining your intentions about engaging, including specific skills that they can take back if they’re in resistance, are useful strategies.
As you think about your design strategy, it might be useful to get people engaged early and thinking about the current climate, the types of microaggressions that happen, the impact of those when no one speaks up, and what you can do. That’s my basic full day that covers breadth of differences, understanding privileged and marginalized, recognizing & responding to microaggressions in very engaged activities.
When people are in resistance, it is preferable to have them in pairs instead of small groups, where they may go off on their way. Another option is concentric circles. This is when you have one circle outside of another. Once in their circles, participants face each other and I’ll ask, “I know this is mandatory, so how are you feeling about being here?” and “Now, that we’re here, is there one or two things you’re hoping we do?” I engage the resistance straight on.
The next questions could be, “When did you matter? When were you marginalized?” These questions allow for a lot of input. Getting feedback from others about a time when they felt that they mattered can help to loosen resistance. When sharing the marginalized examples, I’d get five or six stories in the room, listening for if they’re all about race. Then ask, “What did you notice about the content people shared?” If people say they’re about race, I’d say, “That’s great noticing. Now, let’s get a couple other types of diversity in the room.”
People in resistance often talk about hierarchy. Their pain they typically express will be about their supervisors, the organization not being supportive, and not being paid well. This can be another reason people might be resistant, wondering why we are talking about diversity when we’re treated so badly around hierarchy and class? And that’s a really good question.
If you’re going to have a conversation, say you’re doing a training for a specific unit, you may want to be asking these questions, “Overall, how do people feel they’re valued and respected in general?”; “By hierarchy, what’s the relationship with the supervisor, how is the climate on the team?” Because if the organization starts investing time, resources in DEI, and if they’re bringing in outside people, then people may wonder why aren’t they not raising my salary? So, all those situations could come up in resistance.
So, engage it early on and be very intentional.