“I don’t see color.”
“Isn’t this an HR issue?”

These are among any number of misunderstandings and challenges that may come up during Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) trainings. First, it’s good to remember the 70-20-10 rule from the Center for Creative Leadership: Individuals tend to learn 70% of their knowledge from challenging experiences and assignments, 20% from developmental relationships, and 10% from coursework. (CCL, 2020). In other words, challenging experiences during a training may be the best growth opportunity for both the trainer and participants.

That said, there’s nothing like being caught off-guard when you are in the front of the room facilitating a conversation. This article checks in with top DEI and leadership experts on the most common objections they hear from participants during DEI trainings, to help equip you with language to respond, whether it’s in a classroom setting or everyday conversation.

Language Paralysis

People can be paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing. While you may immediately think this applies to terms about race and ethnicity, it starts before you get into a training. Is it Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? Or is the “E” for Engagement? What about A for Access? And where is Neurodiversity included? “If (white people like me especially) don’t have some guidance and agreement and context about which problems they’re trying to solve they don’t jump in as readily,” says Lee Mozena, a cross-cultural trainer and communications specialist, founder of Zena Consulting and an associate of Executive Diversity Services. In response, Lee has developed a presentation specifically on the language of DEI to address that. Starting with definitions establishes a common language. Plus if someone feels they are using a word incorrectly, they can always blame the presenter! It takes the pressure off the individual.

Great Idea, but It Won’t Work Here

Tracy Brown is a nationally recognized expert, TEDx speaker, author and consultant who works in the DEI space and around ending race-based violence and hatred. She shares this curveball she hears in trainings:

“You don’t understand. That’s a great idea, but it won’t work here.”

The response to this is less about the “answer” from the trainer, and more about the strategy of who is in the room during organizational DEI trainings. “Don’t put your trainer in the position of having to prove the organization’s commitment to the DEI initiative,” advises Tracy. “Always have an internal leader who is respected or who is a known authority introduce the session. If you can’t have a senior leader at every session, use a video recording from the CEO or other key leader to explain why the training is important to the organization,” she says. Tracy suggests leaders share a personal story about how they have applied the content (or why DEI is personally important to them) when talking about their company’s DEI initiative.

Request and plan for this involvement in training sessions in advance. “During this welcome the leader can transfer some of their credibility to the trainers (whether internal or external) by saying why they value the trainers delivering this course. Have them end with a call to action or an expectation for the people taking the class.”

My Manager Needs to Hear This:

“I agree with everything you’re saying, but my manager needs to come to this training.”

“Did you say the managers had already done this training? They sure don’t act like it.”

This is a common refrain that Tracy has heard in her DEI trainings. “If people managers and executives receive training separate from individual contributors and front-line staff, be sure to build in specific calls to action that require them to talk about the training and practice the tools,” says Tracy, who also has addressed this in real-life situations. “It’s smart to also provide organizational leaders with bulleted talking points or prepared content they can share with their team members. This will not only give more visibility to your DEI initiative, but it will result in higher levels of competence, confidence and credibility for your leaders.”

This is Great, for Those Other People Who Need It

Mercedes Martin, a business and leadership development consultant and founder of Mercedes Martin & Co. is a fan of the “pivot question.” When someone says, “we don’t have a racism or diversity problem here,” Mercedes might respond “Can you share what you mean by a racism or diversity problem?” Or “what are the experiences that led you to this idea?” That shifts from the person to the ideas. It “makes room to consider how social beliefs and structures impact the organization’s internal systems,” and makes it comfortable to share their ideas, without it feeling like an attack on specific people.

Mercedes uses the analogy of the “lens and the mirror.” Trainers can use pivot questions to get people talking not only about the lens that influences their experience of the workplace, but also the mirror, which invites deeper self-reflection and awareness, a cornerstone of cultural competence.

Living in the Ambiguity

A facilitator leads effectively by making participants the focus and providing discussion prompts that enable each person to contribute. The facilitator’s role is to draw out responses so that participants get ideas from one another. As facilitators, our best response may be to check our own triggers, to remain objective. And then push back to a question with a question that connects the issue to the workplace. For example, someone saying “it’s not my responsibility to teach my colleagues about racism.” Turn this around with a question. “How could sharing how you experience the world help you in working better with your colleagues.” Or validate the comment, and then ask others in the room, “how might that help or hinder your work together at your company?”

And on those opener questions about being color-blind or deferring to HR? Denying that difference exists relies on adherence to the norms of the majority. That is in direct opposition to the purpose of DEI which is to recognize and embrace innovation and diversity of ideas that different perspectives bring—when people feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work. And as far as DEI being an HR only issue, an effective DEI strategy will permeate every corner of an organization, as it strives for transformational change.

About the Authors

Lee Mozena, Tracy Brown and Mercedes Martin are each long-time consultants in leadership development, DEI and organizational change. All are associates of Executive Diversity Services. Deanna Shoss (she/her) is a marketer, writer and interculturalist in Chicago. As CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc., she provides digital, intercultural, and real-life marketing for non-digital natives. She helps people who seek strategy and tactics to build their business or realize a purpose-driven project with websites, blogging, enewsletters, social media and promotions in real life. Deanna speaks Portuguese and is a certified Body Pump instructor. Learn more at interculturaltalk.com or follow her on Twitter, @cultureguru.

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