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Some find conversations around equity to be challenging or intimidating, so finding the correct approach is important.fizkes/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

In these polarized times, we need conversations that span differences within our organizations, building trust and uncovering solutions. But fear and grievances from past injustices get in the way.

In her work as a diversity and inclusion consultant, Mary-Frances Winters sees people struggling to find the right words for such chats. “It’s not that most people do not want to engage in inclusive conversations; they do not know how. They do not know what to say so as not to offend or be accused of insensitivity or worse,” she writes in her just-published book, Inclusive Conversations.

She divides those in an office into two sets: Those who have historically found themselves in dominant power (even if they never saw it that way) and those who have traditionally been subordinated and marginalized because of their identity – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or some other dimension of difference. We don’t normally view the organization in those terms; we’re all supposed to be on the same team. But it’s a vital description to keep in mind if you want to bridge differences.

Many people who have long been part of the dominant group fear that a slip of the tongue – one wrong word – might lead to a verbal attack or worse by colleagues and superiors. And while those in power have for a long time promised an equitable and inclusive working environment, many in the same workplace still feel excluded.

It therefore takes more than good intentions and a desire for equity to bridge those divisions. Indeed, Winters lists eight conditions necessary to allow inclusive conversations to occur: Commitment; cultural competence; brave and psychologically safe spaces; an understanding of equity and power; the ability to address fear and fragility; grace and forgiveness; trust and empathy; and belonging and inclusion.

Don’t slide by commitment too quickly. Many leaders would argue they have always had a commitment to equity, but in her 35 years as a consultant, Winters doesn’t feel we have fundamentally changed the structures and systems that either maintain or worsen the conditions for historically subordinated groups. Think through how dedicated you truly are to changing things and where that desire stems from. As well, think of how you can improve your own knowledge and understanding of the differences in culture within your workplace, so that you can be competent enough to help make change.

It’s routine to talk about the need for psychologically safe spaces for touchy conversations, but the consultant says we need to move beyond that to create brave zones, where deep truths can be expressed without fear of retribution. She argues that for dominant groups discussing race, “safety” means, “You will not make me feel uncomfortable.” But for those who have historically been marginalized, “safety” often means, “I can make you feel uncomfortable (even if that is not my intention) and you will listen without defensiveness, dismissiveness, and ‘whitesplaining,’” which Winters defines as a situation in which a white person explains to a Black person the true nature of racism. So expect in these brave spaces that there may be discomfort and discord, but everyone will feel safe enough to be brave.

Winters asks you to distinguish between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same way. Equity is treating people according to what they need and deserve. That assumes some groups have historically been denied what they need due to entrenched inequitable systems. How do you achieve equity given that situation? She warns that attaining equity will involve conversations about power – not a normal or easy topic in the office.

You will also need to face up to the fear and fragility that exists these days. “Many people are afraid of talking about diversity and inclusion topics for fear they might get it wrong and not be forgiven. Acknowledging these fears is an all-important step in engaging in inclusive conversations,” the consultant says.

She urges you to literally talk to yourselves about these issues – in quiet contemplation but also out loud – as part of the self-understanding needed to then talk with others. The idea is for you in your reflection to bring unconscious thoughts into the foreground, where they can be challenged. Where are you clinging to behaviours that are inequitable?

Winters also warns that race is a dynamic in all cross-race conversations. If you are white, you need to realize the Black person you speak to is aware of that dynamic, even if they might not admit it. So if you are white, reflect: What role does my whiteness play in the conversation? How might someone with a different identity might feel?

Inclusive conversations are a beguiling concept, but they are highly challenging for managers. They require moving beyond traditional power dynamics in the office that many managers have taken for granted and benefited from. But if you aim for inclusion, such conversations are now something more you need to learn. And as with all learning, that will involve periods of incompetence before it becomes more natural. You’ll only learn by trying.


  • Ask your team whether they have ever been in a lousy meeting and what made it so awful, suggests Columbia University Professor Rita Gunther McGrath. Then commit to not doing those things in your own bailiwick.
  • It’s time to raise our expectations for diversity results with strict consequences for failure, says human resources specialist John Sullivan. If your HR chief fails to produce adequate results, they should be gone.
  • In decision-making, timeliness trumps perfection, warns former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy. The most damaging decisions are the missed opportunities, the decisions that didn’t get made in time.

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