How to Talk About Race at Work

Talking about race can be an emotionally-charged experience, and talking about race at work is no exception. You may feel anxious about introducing JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) topics at work because of the big emotions these conversations bring to the surface, but if we want our organizations to be inclusive and equitable they are conversations we need to have.

But the key isn’t to ignore these emotions, it’s to lean into them. Yes, talking about race can feel challenging. But developing emotional intelligence will help to work through the anxieties preventing you from leading your team with confidence.

Learning how to notice and manage our own and others’ emotions is a foundational aspect of effective leadership. Here are some tips to develop your emotional intelligence skills so you can feel more comfortable talking to your team about racial justice.

Eight colleagues are gathered in a team huddle in their office. Each person has one arm outstretched as they reach their hands towards the middle of the circle. They are standing beside a table that is covered in

Don’t Talk Around Emotions — Talk About Them

Remember that—like you—your coworkers are also carrying complex feelings about discussing race and JEDI issues at work (especially if you haven’t made space for these conversations in the past). Some may feel excited, while others may feel anxious or resistant. And as the conversation progresses, these feelings and questions will continue to grow.

While it may feel safer to ignore these unspoken emotions and focus only on theory and statistics, our research shows that this only makes existing negative emotions worse. Humans are not solely rational actors: we don’t just think things through, we also feel our way through the world. And ignoring our emotions doesn’t mean we’ve left them behind.

Instead of letting emotions run unchecked, bringing intentional awareness to the feelings in the room gives you the power to guide your team through them. But having the ability to do this skillfully comes from being able to navigate your own big feelings as well.

Manage Yourself Before Your Team

It’s important to nurture an environment where people can take risks and make mistakes as part of the learning and unlearning process, especially when it comes to anti-racism work. In order to embody these values for others, you must first practice them with yourself.

Self-awareness and self-management are vital parts of effective leadership. As a leader, you set the emotional tone for your team: remember that it all begins with you. With your position comes power, and with power comes emotional responsibility. When we are able to regulate ourselves, we invite space for others to do the same.

Two men dressed in business attire are sitting barefoot and cross legged in a spacious room. Their eyes are closed in meditation.

There are no shortcuts to the inner work necessary to lead with presence and compassion — but here are a couple of tips to get you started:

  1. Take the time to bring awareness to your emotions throughout the day. Your awareness is like a muscle, and as this practice becomes more frequent it will also become more automatic. Practice asking yourself “how am I feeling right now?” will help you become more familiar with your own emotions and develop the internal and external vocabulary you need to recognize them.
  2. Anticipate and navigate your triggers. Conversations around race, gender, ability, class, and other identities can lead to strong, almost visceral emotional responses. Learn to recognize when your fight, flight or freeze response is kicking in and you’ll be able to take the steps needed to re-center yourself more quickly and easily.
  3. Practice grounding exercises. When you find yourself feeling distressed, it’s helpful to have reliable tools available for self-regulation. Find practices that help to ground you in a more stable emotional state. It could be as simple as going for a walk, taking a few deep breaths or repeating positive affirmations.

Now you know what to do… what’s next?

Meaningful, lasting change is only possible when we meet each other with presence and compassion. By developing emotional intelligence you’ll feel ready to confidently lead your team through potentially challenging but critically important conversations.

For more on how you can transform your workplace into a more equitable environment while developing your own leadership skills, join our Deep Diversity Summer Institute. Next course starts August 23, 2022.

Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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