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I gave a talk this past Monday to a volunteer service organization, about how to better engage with diverse populations, and how to make one’s organization more diverse. I said that by “diverse” I didn’t mean employing some kind of Affirmative Action plan or just complying with EEOC rules and regulations.

By “diversity,” I told my audience, I meant diversity in ideas, perspectives, experiences, and cultures. I talked about the energy and the new ideas that diverse people can bring to an organization, and how that diversity can help an organization serve diverse populations better.

During the QA session after my talk, one member of the organization said to me, “So what you’re saying is, we should ask people to join our organization based on how they look, on their appearance. Or that we should say, ‘We need an older person, a younger person, a woman, a man…’”

He’d listened to what I said about the benefits of diverse opinions and perspectives. But what he heard was, they needed to mechanically include, in an organization, all of the physical variances in human beings: age, gender, and “appearance,” i.e. ethnicity or race.

That’s a common reaction; he’s not alone in thinking that. Depending on someone’s experience with diversity, they might think of diversity as being diversity of appearance and physical characteristics. However, diversity also includes differences in culture, values, spiritual beliefs, experiences with law enforcement, values, holidays observed, levels of acceptance in particular neighborhoods and jobs. No matter what your experiences, you can always expand your experiences with diverse ideas, perspectives, and cultures.

The take-away from this? If you’re listening to someone talk about diversity and you believe that they’re saying that achieving diversity is just checking off items on a laundry list, or judging people simply by physical characteristics, listen again. If that’s what the person you’re talking to is really saying, find someone else to talk to. Otherwise, as I told the group I was speaking to, the best way to start expanding your experience is to listen and be curious.

If you’re talking with someone who has a vastly different life experience than you have, listen to them tell you the truth of their lived experience. If you find yourself mentally – or vocally – disagreeing with what you hear, just listen. Ask yourself how what you’re hearing could be true. If you find yourself contradicting, listen. If you find yourself thinking you know better than the person talking to you, listen.

Listen and be curious. Be better able to engage with diverse populations, and to benefit your organization with the energy and new ideas that diversity can bring.

Photo credit: © 2014 Queen’s UniversityCC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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