How to Have Antiracist Conversations

In this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show, I spoke with clinical psychologist and author Dr. Roxy Manning about Nonviolent Communication and how it can be used in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work and inclusive leadership.

For this conversation, I was joined by Dr. Roxy Manning, who is based in the United States meaning our conversations spanned the ocean. Roxy is a clinical psychologist and she is the author of “How to Have Antiracist Conversations”. Now, a lot of my clients are talking about how they can become anti-racist businesses and employers, particularly after the murder of George Floyd in America. And a lot of senior leaders that I work with are particularly interested in how they can reduce racial inequality within their workplaces and how they can develop anti-racism in the organisations that they lead. To get us started, I asked Roxy to tell me a bit more about herself, her background, and what she does.

‘I’m a Black Caribbean immigrant to the United States, so part of my background was informed by being an immigrant, being Black and having multiple identities here in the US. I am a clinical psychologist for San Francisco County, where I work with the homeless citizen franchise population. I’m also a certified trainer for Nonviolent Communication and I work with organisations and people who are trying to learn how to have more effective conversations about a host of things. But one of my specialities is how do we have these conversations about race and other forms of oppression.

Nonviolent Communication is an approach that was developed in the 1960s by a psychologist here in the US, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. One of the things, a dear friend of mine says, is it’s a consciousness masquerading as a communication tool. So that’s the part that brings in Nonviolent Communication. It’s a way to think about our relationships with each other, with other human beings, and with the entire earth. It helps us to find our common ground. What are the things that we share in common that we can use to help us identify sources of conflict and resolve them? That’s the consciousness part that we all have, every single human being in the world essentially has the same values and needs. The communication tool part of it is that there’s this four-step model that can guide us in having conversations that break down, “What is it that we’re observing? How do we feel about it? What’s important to us? What do we value?” And then what do we want to do about it?’

I love how Roxy describes Nonviolent Communication almost as if it’s a mindset thing or mindfulness. When I do inclusive leadership training with my clients, we’ve got a model that we teach them about the difference between being a mindful leader and being in survival mode. When you’re being a mindful leader, you are being less judgmental. You are creating space to have meaningful conversations with people and connect with people on a deeper level. But if you’re in survival mode, you can often become quite judgmental of yourself or other people. You’re not really being conscious of how your behaviour impacts others around you. I like the synergies there between the two.

Roxy added, ‘I love that you’re saying this, mindful versus survival, because this is what happens a lot, right? Before I started learning Nonviolent Communication, it was easy to run those old patterns. Something happens and I blame and judge the other person, or I blame and judge myself. When we start thinking about things like oppression, we do the same thing. That person is evil and bad, and we judge them and essentially want to cancel them. But instead, if we can get out of this survival mode into thinking, “Okay, human beings are fundamentally rational, so why are we doing this thing that’s not working for you or for me?” We can move from judgment to being reflective and intentional about what’s going on for that person. We can start to find a path for connection.’

My next question was about how we might use Nonviolent Communication to support the workaround diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

‘I like to talk about it from a couple of perspectives. Usually, when we’re talking about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, there’s often something that’s happened, right? You’re brought into organisations, something’s happened and people are unhappy.

I’m going to introduce a couple of terms that I use, which are part of that intentionality, that consciousness of not being judgmental. I talk about the actor, who’s the person who did the thing that was hard for someone, which is different from the perpetrator. The minute I say perpetrator, you want to throw that person away. I also talk about the receiver, the person to whom that thing was done to – versus the victim, which takes away their agency. One of the things we can use Nonviolent Communication for as the actor is to learn how to show up, to notice what’s going on inside of us. Ask “What’s important to me. Why did I even do this thing that I don’t even want to do?” Instead of judging myself, I connect to my needs and use that to find a different strategy to get my needs met.

As the receiver, I want to be able to say, “When you did that thing that I didn’t like, it didn’t work for me. It doesn’t make you a bad or evil person, but I can talk about it from the perspective of what were my needs. What was I wanting in that moment, that I couldn’t access because of this thing that you did?” It helps to reframe that conversation around values and needs, rather than good or bad and evil and someone who can be saved.’

What Roxy said reminds me of the communication triangle that I read about in a book called ‘Loving What Is’ by an American woman called Byron Katie. I went along to one of her workshops in London and she says that there’s communication from others to ourselves, but then there’s communication back on ourselves. The example that she gave in the workshop was that she was saying that somebody might feel frustrated or annoyed that their colleague ignores them. She said, Okay, right, give me five examples of when your colleague ignored you.” Then you have to list those five reasons. And she said, “Right. Now write down five times you’ve ignored your colleague.” And I thought, oh this is interesting because suddenly it’s getting you to think, “Well actually I’m being ignored but maybe I ignore others too.” So that was interesting. And then she said, “Now write down five times you’ve ignored yourself.” And I thought oh this is getting even more interesting because it’s that introspection.

Roxy agreed. ‘I love this kind of awareness because this is one of the things humans do, right? We have this fundamental attribution error meaning when I think about my actions, I can come up with all of the wonderful reasons why I did the thing that I did. And I can still feel sad that I made that choice, but I get it. I know why I made that choice. But when I look at your behaviour I can’t think of those reasons. So, we just judge you and once we start to slow down and think, “Well, what are some of the reasons I might have done that?” We might then be better able to understand why another person might have taken that same action. To make a request for different behaviour, especially when we’re talking about equity, it’s not about saying that just because you did this thing, and I understand your reasons, it’s okay, but I’m removing the judgment that prevents us from making that connection so that I can make that request for a different action.’

I was curious to find out from Roxy how we could use Nonviolent Communication to challenge behaviours like microaggressions more effectively, something that comes up a lot when we talk about communication or conflict within teams.

‘I mentioned earlier that there are four steps of Nonviolent Communication on the communication model side. The first step that’s helpful with microaggressions is the observation, “What actually happened?” That’s one of the things that’s challenging about microaggressions. As I mentioned, I’m a Black Caribbean person. If someone says, “Oh my gosh, you’re so articulate” that’s the observation. But that has a really loaded meaning if they say it to me. I used to do training with a white man here in the US and he never got that comment but I always got that comment and there’s a different meaning underneath. So, I started to look at both the observation but I also look at the historical context and I include that in my observation. This person is saying this to me. There could be a lot of reasons why. And there’s also this context where Black folks in the US who achieve a certain level of education and stature can often hear that with a surprised tone of voice. So, I start to notice and be able to name what I’m seeing. That’s the first step. And then, especially in the workplace, this one is a little bit challenging. I want to check in on how did that make me feel? I’m paying attention to what’s happening inside of me. Was I frustrated? Was I angry? And I’ve been angry when people have said that to me in the past.

The following question is the next Nonviolent Communication step. “What am I needing? What’s important to me in that situation?” I realised that what was important to me was I wanted to be trusted when I walked into the room to teach because I had something to offer. Every time I heard that statement with a tone of surprise, I would start to tell myself, does this person think I wouldn’t have anything to offer because I’m a Black person?

So, then I would make a request, I’d check in with the person “When you just said to me that I’m so articulate, but you didn’t say it to my colleague, were you feeling surprised that I’m a Black person and I speak the way that I do?” That’s a hard thing to say to someone, right?

So, one of the things I often suggest to folks is if that step is too hard to do right now, you can then focus on just the internal part. So, I could also say to the person, “When you said that to me, what came up for me was how often Black folks aren’t trusted for their intelligence or seen for all of their capacities. And I’m not sure if you meant that, but I want you to know that this is what gets stimulated for me as a Black person in America. I’m wondering if you could find a different way to let me know what it is that you were excited about when you heard me speak. What prompted you to say that?”

In some ways I’m telling them, move away from the judgment and you’re so articulate to what’s the specific thing I did that you loved. That helps us to reduce microaggressions.’

I can imagine a lot of people would have difficulty calling that kind of thing out. So, it’s positive to hear that for somebody who might struggle to raise this with a colleague or coworker or client they should focus on the internal and notice what’s going on for them internally.

I asked Roxy, ‘Do you think that something like journalling helps where you can write down your thoughts or feelings?’

‘Yes, absolutely. This is one of the things that people tell me a lot. It’s like, it just happened and I feel frozen, I don’t know what to say. And we have this culture of urgency where we tell ourselves “I’ve got to respond right away, otherwise my opportunity is lost.” I tell people, “No, go journal. Get some empathy from someone. Connect to what’s important to you. And then you can go back to that conversation even a month later and say, remember when this thing happened? I’ve been thinking about it and I’d love to tell you what came up for me.” So, take that time. Journal, do whatever you need to do to be able to self-connect before jumping into the conversation.’

Whilst Roxy and I were talking about being on the receiving end of these micro behaviours because ultimately when we talk about a microaggression or a micro incivility, they’re these small disrespectful behaviours, I’m conscious of it right now because I’m trying to focus on what Roxy has been saying. But I also keep looking away to my second screen because I’ve got the structure of the interview and the questions that I want to ask Roxy. Now I’m thinking that could be perceived as a microaggression where I’m not paying attention to the person I’m interviewing and I’m not maintaining eye contact.

I mean I’ve done microaggressions lots of times. I’ve been in a meeting with colleagues where I’ve been looking at my phone rather than paying them attention for example. I’m probably even guilty of micro incivility when it comes to somebody’s characteristics, whether that’s their ethnicity or their gender. Maybe a little remark that I made might be a bit perceived as being insensitive.

I wondered what Roxy’s advice is around this. ‘What should we be doing if we are guilty of making these microaggressions? How can we show up? How can we take responsibility and what can we learn from our actions so that we can help the other person?’

‘I think that’s one of the challenges of microaggressions, especially from that actor, the person who’s doing the behaviour. In the example you gave, Toby, you’ve got a great logical reason for looking at your second screen. If I don’t know what that reason is I might perceive it as a microaggression. That is one of the first hallmarks of microaggressions. That as the actor, it’s so easy to say, but that’s not my intention. That wasn’t what I meant. Instead, I always tell folks that microaggression is about the perception of the receiver. You might have a wonderful intention, you might have a good reason for what you’re doing, but it’s about how it’s landing for the receiver.

I use this silly example which I’ll share in a moment to help people take it in. People often talk about, “It’s about the impact, not about the intention,” but we don’t internalise this. Anyway, here’s my silly watermelon story. Okay. I’ve got kids and all stereotypes aside, we love watermelon and it’s hot summertime. Just imagine that I’m making this beautiful watermelon salad for my kids and I’m chopping the watermelon with a big knife. And as I’m chopping this watermelon, one of the kids reaches in to grab a piece because it looks so juicy and I cut them. What would we do in this situation?

We’d immediately be like, “What do I need to do to take care of this cut?” We’d go to the emergency room, put a Band-Aid on them. We’d take care of the kid. What we wouldn’t do is say, “Oh my daughter, dear child, you’re cut. And I’m feeling so sad because this watermelon was so juicy and you would’ve loved it and I really wanted you to have this watermelon and I’m just so devastated that you don’t see how beautiful this watermelon is.”

We wouldn’t do that but that’s what we do with microaggressions. Instead of focusing on the person, the impact and that they need support, we focus on our intentions. Whether it’s saying, “I want you to see this beautiful thing I was trying to do.” Or “I was trying to compliment you and tell you how wonderful you were.” It doesn’t matter, it’s your impact. So, I always tell people, “Put the Band-Aid on first. If you’re the actor, empathise with the person. Understand why they’re having the impact that they did because it’s usually not about you.”

I asked Roxy if there could also be an element of defensiveness on the actor’s part when they say it was their intention.

‘Yes. When I notice that I’m feeling defensive, my recommendation as the actor is to stop. Don’t stay in that conversation if you’re feeling defensive because it’s frustrating for the receiver. They’ll be trying to tell you about the impact that you had and you are not receiving them, instead, you’re being defensive. Tell the person, “I need a moment because I notice a lot of shame or guilt,” or whatever it is coming up and say, “I want to take care of that, so I can be fully present with how this was for you.” Go get some support, journal, and then go back to the receiver. But make sure you go back and say, “Okay, I’m really ready to hear now how you were impacted by what I did.”

What Roxy said there takes us back to our earlier discussion about being a mindful leader rather than being in survival mode. As Roxy is a psychologist with expertise in Nonviolent Communications who has also written a book about anti-racist organisations, my next question was, ‘What are some of the approaches that senior business leaders should be employing to create a more inclusive environment where everybody can thrive?’

‘One of the challenges I think, is that a lot of organisations approach diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in almost crisis mode. Something happens like in the US with the murder of George Floyd, and suddenly everyone’s like, “We need to create spaces where people can talk about these things”, but it’s this one-time thing. Or maybe they do it for two or three months and then they drop it again. So, the first thing that senior leaders need to recognise is that this is an ongoing, nonstop committed practice. It’s not a one-and-done kind of activity. It’s not bringing in a trainer, and then thinking I’ve done it for the year. Instead, think about what your long-term plan for addressing diversity and equity in your organisation is. And bringing in Nonviolent Communication into that plan means it needs to include the questions, “How am I understanding the experiences of people with different identities in my organisation? Where are the spaces where I’m getting that information and making it safe enough for people to tell me that information without them having to worry that they’re going to be punished? What are the actions that I’m taking to follow up on what I’m learning?”

Your plan needs to be a continuous assessment, of understanding what’s happening, what’s working, and then interventions that are guided by the folks who are impacted. A lot of times people are thinking, “Well, this is what I would want if I were in that situation”, but if I’m a senior leader, I have a certain level of rank and power, which means I probably am approaching the situation a bit differently than someone without that level of security. Think about what would support the folks who are impacted from their perspective, not just from your perspective.’

I’d like to just do a little bit of a deep dive into Roxy’s book and talk about what we mean by anti-racism. It’s not a new term in the UK but I think people are talking about anti-racism more nowadays than maybe they did in the past. I do think there’s a little bit of confusion amongst business leaders about what anti-racism is and what it means to be anti-racist. ‘

When people think of racism, they might immediately think of using racial slurs, and racist behaviours like a couple of years ago with the Euro final football here in the UK, where the England team got to the finals and there was a penalty shootout and there were two black England football players who were lined up to kick the ball. What happened was they missed and immediately there were loads of racist remarks being made on Twitter directed at these players. If it was, say, a white player doing that, they would not have received those kinds of remarks about them and their race. I do remember I was talking to a colleague of mine the following day, a Black woman who said to me, she didn’t allow her children to go to school the following day because she feared they would probably receive racist abuse on the way there.

Honestly, my heart sank. I felt so terrible because I just thought, “I’ve never been in that position before. I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism because I’m a white bloke.” I’m rambling a bit here because I just wanted to set the scene, so I hope Roxy can clear up what is meant by being an anti-racist and wanting to create an anti-racist organisation.

‘The example there is the kind of racism that a lot of people think and talk about. For many people, they think, “That’s not me. I don’t do that.” They don’t post things like that on Twitter and they think that’s where it stops. When we talk about being anti-racist, we’re talking about something a wee bit different. I love how Dr. Ibram X. Kendi defines it. I think about racism more broadly as something that leads to differential outcomes for groups, reliably because of race. So, if I’m in an organisation, they might say in previous times, “Oh we’re going to only hire people from the best colleges.”. It may seem like a great idea in practice, but if I want to be an equitable organisation, it’s ignoring the fact that many Black and Brown folks have been kept out of these colleges. The whole pipeline is set up to make sure that they don’t get into a lot of these colleges. So, hiring folks only from these colleges means I’m restricting my pool, which leads to a racist outcome because I’m going to have a disproportionate number of folks who are not Black or Brown because of that. That’s one of the ways we can have a racist action without even thinking about it.

So anti-racist actions mean taking steps or creating policies or procedures that do not have a different outcome because of race. It’s seeking to remove those barriers. It’s looking for things that are supporting making it more equitable and making the outcomes supportive across different groups, equal across different groups.’

I thanked Roxy for explaining it so brilliantly and it makes perfect sense to me. I’ve had so many conversations with organisations about broadening the universities, colleges and schools that they attract graduates from, and it’s good to hear the why behind that and how where there’s systemic racism it leads to racist outcomes.

It was time to address the penultimate question that I ask everybody when they come on the Inclusive Growth podcast with me, which is, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

Roxy said, ‘For me, from an organisational standpoint, inclusive growth means that I’m working to support my businesses thriving in ways that also create opportunities for everybody in the organisation and everyone that we impact to benefit. Working to make that benefit equal; it’s equitable across fields. I’m going to pause a moment and I’m glad that I said equal because it’s not about equality, right? It’s really about equity. We’re currently in a phase because there have been so many inequitable outcomes that equity means maybe giving more resources or tending more to the needs of those whose needs have not been met and who continue to be unmet.

When I think about inclusive growth, I might be thinking from a hiring perspective, “How can I help make sure that I’m hiring the people into my organisation who have not yet been represented,” so even if it looks unequal in the moment, it’s equitable because I’m restoring balance in equity.

I also want to make sure that I’m not just thinking about my bottom line, but I’m also thinking about, “How are we impacting the world? How are we impacting our communities? What are we doing to create a pipeline of support for different outcomes?” Thinking about it now so that in five and ten years, my organisation is positioned to really support equity in an anti-racist world.’

Before our conversation finished, I wanted to ask Roxy, ‘What is a particular action that you would love the person reading this to take away with them and start to think about for their own organisation?’

‘One specific action that I think folks can take is to start to ask yourself, “What have I only been seeing from my perspective, from my worldview? What are the blinders or the limitations that I’m experiencing? Because I just don’t understand what it’s like to be a person who’s Black, a person, with a disability, a person from a different gender than mine How am I perceiving the world in a way that’s very constrained?”

Go and talk to people who have identities that are different from yours, not from an extractive position where I want to take all your knowledge and then we’ll never interact again, but by starting to build those relationships so that people feel comfortable sharing and understanding, so this is a place where we can work together to create change.

I’ve also got to add, the other action folks can take is to go buy my books. They’re available for pre-order now. There’s “How to Have Antiracist Conversations” and the book that will help you support that internal work that we’ve talked about is “The Antiracist Heart” which is a handbook that goes with the first book.’

To get help for your organisation’s diversity and inclusion journey, the team at Mildon are only a click away. Go to our website because we would love to have a conversation with you and find out how we can support you on your journey.

How to Have Antiracist Conversations - Mildon