I attended a public event recently to hear a highly-regarded speaker with a background in diplomacy. After the complex talk was a Q&A, and a number of audience members made their way to the mic. They asked thoughtful, polite questions that were then answered with thoughtful, polite replies. Just as the session was winding down, a final audience member made his way to the microphone. You could see the audience tense up. I confess I did too. This man was noticeably different. His physical appearance was rumpled, his clothing in disarray. When he began to speak, he was far louder than anyone else who had used the mic and he began a rambling, rapid string of comments about the program. My first impulse was to feel sorry for the speaker, to wonder how she was going to handle this awkward rant and shouted questions.
But what happened was not what I nor the rest of the audience expected.
The speaker thanked the man warmly and sincerely. She showed no signs of discomfort. She reiterated several of the points he’d made and brought them together into the question he was trying to pose, restated it, and asked him to verify that was what he was asking (it was). She then dug into the answer. As it turned out, the man’s question was more profound and insightful than any of the others asked, and the unique lens he’d brought forward allowed the speaker to illuminate an entirely new perspective on her topic.
Everything about the atmosphere in the room changed. The audience shifted in attitude. The man clearly felt heard and understood. The room felt not as if a talk had just happened, but as if something deeply connective had occurred, as if we all now belonged to something bigger. The audience lingered and discussed the topic and how it related to our own experiences. People went up to the man afterward and talked to him, engaged him further. I came away from the evening thinking about the subject of the talk, but also moved by the act of inclusion. I was forced to reconsider my initial reaction to the man’s awkwardness.
In the guise of politeness, we in the audience initially tolerated the man, but the speaker flawlessly included him, and helped his perspective shine. It transformed an informative talk into something much more, something powerful.
There were four critical pieces to the interaction that helped create inclusion:
- The format created opportunities for anyone to lend their voice.
- The speaker cheered the man’s effort, affirmed his participation, and reiterated his input to allow him to verify that she had heard him correctly. When she did this, his own body language softened, almost like he felt relief. The sense of tension, in him and in the room, became slack.
- The speaker then engaged his ideas and perspective directly, with authentic interest, instead of giving a boilerplate response.
- Lastly, the speaker did these things publicly, where the audience and the man could see that the engagement between them was valued.
I admit I sometimes fall into the trap of confusing inclusion with politeness.
Inclusion is not hospitality. Inclusion is not politeness. Hospitality and politeness are lovely things, but often they are temporary. They do not demand any deeper engagement. By their entire nature, they are meant to alleviate discomfort. That is perfectly fine for dinner guests or cocktail parties, but it’s not helpful in the long term for building a strong and resilient community.
Inclusion occurs where efforts, grounded in a recognition of the value of broad participation, are underway to genuinely welcome all voices to the conversation, despite, and often in the face of, discomfort.
Inclusion is not always easy. It is not always smooth and sleek. We may not always get it just right, but we are compelled to try. Aside from any moral arguments for inclusion, research continues to demonstrate teams and businesses are made stronger, more resilient, and more competitive, as a result of inclusion. The unique perspectives of team members who feel genuinely included may be what pivot a business or even save it.
Does our communication within our teams invite inclusion, or dissuade it? Are we welcoming our team members to bring their full selves, their unique perspectives to our work together? Are we creating opportunities for contribution, affirming a team member’s risk in sharing their voice, genuinely valuing that engagement, and doing so in a visible way so the entire team witnesses the inclusion, reinforcing it as part of the team culture? It may not always be easy, but a culture of inclusion is essential to creating a strong, resilient team. A culture of inclusion changes the everyday work of a team into something more, something powerful.
Enough with politeness; let’s be inclusive.
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Unitonomy: let’s work together better.