5 Inclusive Communication Must Have Tools

1. Perspective-Taking 

When we take the perspective of another person, our brains engage what is described as the  "mentalizing" network. This network is engaged when we search for new alternatives or deviate from routines, provoking selection of options we typically wouldn’t take into consideration. With this in mind, perspective-taking is the perfect way to begin examining, unpacking, and potentially diminishing or eliminating personal bias. The act forces us to explore beyond what we believe to be true and look for alternatives that may not be aligned with prejudgments or limited past experiences. 

Based on the premise that perspective-taking ability can be improved through practice, SEB, a Swedish corporate bank, aimed to enhance perspective-taking skills and apply them to the bank’s most important business challenges. Since the launch of their initiative in 2018, many leaders within SEB have participated in a systematic group training process to build perspective-taking skills. According to the case study, the ability to solve problems and make decisions improved, as did inclusion, cross-collaboration, and risk management.

2. Inclusive Language 

Inclusive language is communication that avoids using words, expressions, or assumptions that exclude people across gender, language, culture, race, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, family structure, marital status, sexuality, origin, class, and/or organizational classification. Inclusive language is not about being politically correct; it is instead a genuine effort to truly see and honor people in a way that is most appropriate for them. It's an attempt to address imbalance in written and spoken language. Inclusive language allows you to actively embrace individuals’ intersection of identities and avoid assumptions that could harm relationships before they even start. Inclusive language shows sensitivity, respect, and open-mindedness towards individuals and groups, through positive, accurate, equitable representation.

Sometimes, simply changing one word for another can make a huge difference between inclusive and exclusive language. In the workplace, consider instead of saying ladies and gentlemen, or men and women, use language that's broader, like colleagues, associates, or friends. Instead of the possessive, my team, perhaps you can talk about our team. It implies power-sharing while also acknowledging a relationship that is inclusive. Another suggestion here is shifting from people who work for me to people who work with me, or with whom I work. Again, subtle but important shifts. In many organizations, people complain to me about language that references work classification structure, such as staff versus professionals, or the use of subordinates rather than colleagues. Perhaps a simple shift from these words to something that's more inclusive and more aligned with power sharing will also reflect your espoused values. 

3. Multi-Partial Facilitation 

Most of us understand what facilitation is, but often it is anchored to a belief that "neutrality" is the ultimate goal of an effective facilitator. I have never been a big proponent of neutrality; I just don’t think it’s realistic in humans. We are subjective beings, and much of what we have rationalized as "objective" over time has been revealed to be laden with bias. In addition, the experience of acculturation has led to most people, in most societies, becoming entangled with the stories that have been given to them, by society, parents, peers, educational and religious institutions, the media, and on and on. 

Unlike impartial facilitation, in which the aim is to be neutral towards all narratives, multipartial facilitation takes into account how dominant narratives already have significant weight and power in group settings as we all have likely internalized the logic and assumptions of these narratives. A multipartial facilitator’s responsibility is to address the weight and power of dominant narratives by inviting participants to analyze the assumptions and limitations of their thinking and encourage the contribution of counternarratives. 

4. Empathy 

According to an EY 2021 survey, 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover. The majority (88%) of respondents feel that empathetic leadership creates loyalty among employees toward their leaders. Though empathy is widely promoted in today’s leadership literature, it’s not nearly as prevalent in workplace relationships as many employees would like or expect. The good news is that empathy is a competence that can be enhanced with practice. In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes three types of empathy. 

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to see the world through another person's lenses. It requires curiosity about other people’s reality in order to develop understanding of experiences or worldviews that may be different from one's own. This is much like perspective-taking with a bit more emphasis on curiosity and then following through to care.

    Cognitive empathy helps us know how to make appropriate adjustments in order to communicate most effectively given the other person's needs. It helps us know what matters most to the other person, their worldview, and even what words, tone and timing to use in talking with them. It promotes individualization. According to a study by the Center for Creative Leadership (Gentry, Weber, & Sadri, 2016), managers who are strong in cognitive empathy are rated higher by their direct reports. "And executives who have this mental asset do well when assigned to a culture different than their own – they are able to pick up the norms and ground rules of another culture more quickly."

  • Emotional empathy is present when we feel what the other person does in an instantaneous body-to-body connection. This empathy allows a person to tune in to another's feelings, often experienced through a variety of nonverbal cues. This kind of empathy also leads us to automatically mirror the other person’s feelings. For example, a joyous smile on the face of a person with whom you feel a deep sense of emotional connection automatically brings not only a smile but an instant feeling of joy to you. Daniel Siegel, a UCLA psychiatrist, calls the brain areas that create this resonance the "we" circuitry.

  • Empathic concern allows a leader to quickly jump to act on behalf of another as an expression of care when that person is in hardship or distress. This kind of empathy taps into the same  brain circuitry that controls parental love. It is based on a heartfelt connection with another person.

    Empathic concern shows in our working relationships when we demonstrate willingness to support colleagues, exhibit trustworthiness, and when employees are free to take risks. Imagine the trust that can be built and sustained in a professional relationship when a leader actively calls upon this type of empathy to build and nurture organizational trust? 

Empathy for others is at the heart of positive inclusive relationship-building and dialogue.

5. Constructivist Listening 

Of the 5 listed must-have communication tools, constructivist listening is my favorite because it's simple, practical, and can lead to immediate breakthroughs. Constructivist listening is an effective technique for engaging in conversations that are both intellectually demanding and emotionally challenging. It is distinct from most forms of listening in that its purpose is for the benefit of the speaker, not the listener. 

According to the National Equity Project, constructivist listening protocols ask that you give full attention to another person to hold space for them to:

It is a powerful and simple shift from active listening to a form of listening that explicitly de-centers oneself and centers the speaker. I have hundreds of personal experiences witnessing the speaker stepping forward, a bit more courageously and vulnerably, because they feel the genuine space being created by the listener. The conversation is not being diverted to common interests or experiences, the nonverbal cues are not encouraging or discouraging a particular train of thought, and the flow of the speaker’s own thoughts and needs are being prioritized and facilitated to the forefront of the discussion. Much in line with my experience, the National Equity Project describes, "the listener develops capacities for deep listening, presence, and authentic connection while listening to others’ thinking and experiences. The speaker develops capacities for focused reflection, critical thinking and reasoning, and creative, thoughtful action as they construct personal meaning out of information, concepts, and lived experience." 

Are you looking for a program that can help you and your team with the skills and tools to build a more inclusive workplace? The Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit™ is an online course for anyone in a formal or informal leadership or managerial role who wants to have inclusive and practical tools for maximizing workforce performance. Management principles are made by humans and for humans. As humans change, so do our businesses, our relationships, and our business practices. The Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit is rooted in contemporary best practices based on real-world experience working with leaders. The course provides a roadmap for distinguishing yourself, building your team, and effectively navigating your knottiest leadership challenges.

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DeEtta Jones & Associates (DJA) guides leaders and organizations on a journey that builds capacity, strengthens innovation, and increases organizational performance by creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment.

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