In our How Mindful is Your Diversity Strategy, we discussed the potential value of mindfulness in D&I training and workplace behaviors. The first benefit of mindfulness practice is increasing awareness.
A consistent mindfulness practice, even of just ten minutes a day, can improve and increase awareness of self, others, and self-on-others. Mindfulness, as well as practices of breath and yoga, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system response (rest/relax/refuel) and mitigates the sympathetic nervous system response (flight/fight/freeze) that overly focuses on perceived threat or stressor. Mindfulness helps us deal with stressors more effectively - physically and mentally.
And - So What for D&I?
One of the challenges to D&I is that humans tend to take their view of things from, in order, their own conscious experiences, the expertise or experiences of others, and finally, hard-won insight through thought and reflection. What we learn by experience typically trumps what we learned in class and few people are trained to learn through insight and reflection. Unfortunately, when it comes to complex or difficult matters, our primary learning method, conscious experiences, aren't always representative of the broader world and they are filtered by our unconscious beliefs.
This isn't a surprise because we all have limited time and "fast thinking" (what we experience- Daniel Kahneman 2013) helps us get through the day, while "slow thinking" (what we study and discern) is time and effort intensive. We rely on autopilot until we hit turbulence - then we think slow and deep. This plays out in almost any discussion of importance, and very much in D&I topics.
In some of many D&I-related discussions over the years, I have been challenged by others with their very real and tangible experiences expressed to "prove" that:
"I don't see race - some of my best friends / co-workers are (different color)"
"It's all about quotas - women are getting promoted here to meet a goal"
"It's nobody's business - LGBT employees don't want the attention of being out"
These are difficult discussions in which to engage for two reasons - both related to awareness and both worth understanding.
The first reason is that people view the world through their conscious and unconscious experiences. My colleague says, "The gay people I know would prefer no one knows they are gay!" This may be true in my colleague's experience, but there's a problem: 1. my colleague believes all gay people are like those he knows, 2. he assumes the ones he knows behave around him as they behave around everyone else, and 3. that they behave as they choose, as opposed to in self-preservation. People who don't want to be aware (or confronted) with the sexual identities of others make that clear one way or another - increasing the likelihood that the gay person will stay in the closet or risk creating an uncomfortable situation.
People who don't want to be aware (or confronted) with the sexual identities of others make that clear one way or another
The second reason lies in increasingly apparent fact that people are willing to avoid facts that conflict with their beliefs - as evidenced by the proliferation of "alternative facts” in politics. At work, I can provide reams of validated data on gender wage inequality, only to be met with, "Well, that's not my experience." Because they rely on their own experience (reason 1 above), it may be very true that it's not in their experience. The obvious problem is that, unless he's in HR, my colleague has no idea of the wage gaps of women in his company. When that point is made, the second reason kicks in: the unwillingness to accept verifiable data because it would require a reworking of the internal belief. That unwillingness, if it's even realized, is driven by a fear that accepting this as a fact would logically require a change of position, one that may differ from perceived self-interest. So, providing proof points of exclusion and discrimination or that inclusion increases innovation or decision-making often doesn't hit the mark.
So, providing proof points of exclusion and discrimination or that inclusion increases innovation or decision-making often doesn't hit the mark.
Whether the subject is climate change, vaccines and autism, or the ever-debated concept of "privilege," simply providing evidence can actually create a strong counter-belief that, while devoid of factual awareness, can still shut down discussion. So if facts don't create awareness, what does?
One effective way to increase awareness in a D&I curriculum is to include taking the Implicit Awareness Test. Personally, this is one of the more frustrating experiences I have had, even knowing it's measuring unconscious bias which, by definition, means I'm not consciously holding. Having participants complete the IAT individually before a discussion of unconscious bias sets the stage for candid if uncomfortable dialogue. Taking the IAT doesn't feel particularly mindful, but it does test our capacity for non-judgment and compassion and jump-starts awareness in ways few other approaches can. One important caveat - there is considerable debate about whether the IAT predicts biased behavior, simply reflects biases, or if it does either at all. Personally, I find I/O psych debates to be pretty much like 3rd grade fights, but make up your own mind.
More Mindful-Feeling Daily Practices
A more mindful-feeling and daily practice to increase awareness is simple meditation. It may seem counter-intuitive that quietly meditating can increase our awareness of others, but it can. By practicing the mental and physical discipline of being still, we can learn to manage or mute the incessant demands that are on us from every direction. Connecting our mind and body reduces our emotional reactivity to what we experience, which allows us to be more aware of how we are feeling about what's happening. As we become more aware of ourselves, being social creatures (excepting narcissists), we become more aware of those around us. As we become more aware of those around us, we become more aware of the impact we are having on them.
As mentioned in the first article, other mindful-feeling practices well-suited to increasing awareness in training are the ColorInsight practices created by Law Professor and mindful thinker Rhonda Magee. The practices of "I See You" and "Just Like Me" are simple exercises that introduce awareness in a training environment and, more importantly, can become part of a daily mindfulness practice that is sustained well beyond the training curricula.
To be clear - mindfulness won't eliminate racism or sexism or any consciously chosen bias. But by enhancing our awareness, we can surface the unconscious biases we each have and better understand the impacts we have on each other through unintended slights or exclusive behaviors. Increasing awareness can begin with a simple daily meditation or other practice of five minutes a day, ramping up to ten minutes over eight weeks. These are simple practices, easily taught - whether you call them "mindfulness" or not.
Be Aware - It Doesn't End with Awareness
The downside to increasing awareness of biases in D&I is that, once aware, we tend to judge ourselves (and others) for having them and not feel very forgiving or compassionate about ourselves or others, either. Increasing awareness is necessary, but insufficient without appropriately focused attention, non-judgment and compassion. For this reason, in our next article, we will explore mindfulness and the benefits of focused attention to deal with hard-won awareness.