Get comfortable with uncomfortable

Five ways to start the hard DE&I conversations you may not know how to approach

By Kelly McDonald

Organizations of every size want to know how to “do better and be better,” but many don’t know where to begin. Here are five ways to start having difficult conversations about DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) at work: 

1. Start small

Set the example with your team by naming the elephant in the room. When you acknowledge the awkwardness that you feel, (and probably everyone else does, too), it eases the tension in the room. People are often so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they will say nothing. Naming the elephant in the room also validates others’ feelings of discomfort and provides a sense of relief (“Whew! I’m not the only one who is uncomfortable here!”). 

Here’s an example of how you could start the conversation: 

“I’ve never talked about race at work before, and I am unsure how to do it now. I feel a bit inept and clunky, and I don’t think I am going to be very eloquent. I hope you’ll bear with me. I can imagine it feels awkward for you, too.” 

Those are honest words. People trust someone who speaks openly and honestly.

2. Express sincere interest

Many companies and organizations are so focused on DE&I that they are tying it to their executives’ compensation. That’s fine – unless executives are only going through the “diversity motions” to get their bonuses at the end of the year. Without a sincere desire to do better, a conversation about race at work will come across as disingenuous, gratuitous and opportunistic – because it is. 

Sincerity shows. Make sure your intentions and those of your team leaders are genuinely focused on creating a better workplace for all.

3. Talk less, listen more

When team members start opening up and sharing their experiences and insights, listen with your full attention. Don’t judge others’ feelings. And don’t interrupt to refute their experience. For many White people, it’s hard to hear what people of color and other diverse individuals have experienced or gone through. It’s common to try to downplay or refute those experiences by saying things like, “Well, that was a different era – that wouldn’t happen now.” Or “All people aren’t like that – you just came across some bad people.” Saying things like that diminishes their experiences. Just listen – and consider the insights and stories you hear as a gift. 

Ask questions to better understand the other person’s viewpoints. Validate emotions and show compassion. By talking less and listening more, you’ll create an environment in which people feel free to share their true feelings and experiences.

4. Discuss, don’t debate

The purpose of having a professional dialogue is to discuss, ideate, explore and collaborate, usually to solve a problem or create new opportunities. If your team starts debating issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, refocus the conversation on your goal, which is to develop a plan going forward. Debates drive people into different sides of an issue. And once someone chooses a side, it’s very difficult to get them to consider other viewpoints.

Here’s an example of how to handle a heated conversation: 

“Steve, I don’t want to debate this with you. I want to discuss it with you. The reason we’re talking about this is to figure out a course of action. Tell me your point of view. I’m listening and I want to understand.” By reframing the conversation to develop a course of action, it moves it out of debate mode and into collaboration mode.

5. Push the pause button if you have to

If a conversation has gotten out of control to the point where everyone is upset, don’t try to force a resolution – that’s the time to pause and step away from the subject for a period of time. It’s in the best interests of everyone so that no one says something they’ll regret, which can be disastrous for someone’s career. 

Say, “I don’t think we’re communicating effectively now, and this is too important not to have a constructive conversation. Let’s take a break and pick this up again tomorrow.” The most important part of this is the last sentence: it’s imperative that you let your team know that the conversation is not over. State clearly that you’ll be picking this back at up at a specific day or time – this conveys your commitment and dedication, even in the heat of the moment.

Most of us were never taught how to have conversations about race, diversity, equity and inclusion. We lack skills in this area. But skills can be acquired – and honed. It becomes easier with practice and consistency. If you tackle this with sincerity and a desire to learn, you and your team will make progress.


Kelly McDonald is a speaker who specializes in consumer trends and changing demographics. She is the president of McDonald Marketing and has written four bestselling books on the customer experience, leadership and marketing — all from the standpoint of working with people “not like you.” Her newest book, It’s Time to Talk about Race at Work, debuted at No.1 on a top business bestseller list. You can learn more about the book and McDonald’s work by visiting kellycmcdonald.com.

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