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Tips to Recover from and Respond to a Diversity Faux Pas

The best way to minimize cultural blind spots is to increase your data points around the human experience. And that means, wait for it….interacting with humans who are different from you. The truth is, however, the more you lean in to unfamiliar diversity and have dialog across differences, you increase the likelihood of unintentionally saying something that is culturally improper, insensitive, or even offensive.

Making a diversity faux pas may sting, but it is important to know that you can recover and learn from the experience. Use these tips to make bouncing back from a blunder easier:

  • Take a deep breath. How you respond to a mistake often matters more than the fact that you made one. Take a deep breath to calm your nerves so you can respond thoughtfully and from the other person’s perspective versus react emotionally or defensively.

  • Be open to feedback. Arguing or refusing to appreciate the mistake and its impact on the other person is unproductive. A more positive approach is to listen to feedback, seek to understand (even if you don’t agree in the moment) and acknowledge your knowledge gaps.

  •  Engage in self-reflection. Transform your mistake into a learning opportunity by reflecting on the situation with a more objective lens after time has passed. Really try to understand what the mistake was, why it mattered and what you can do differently. If you are still in doubt, circle back with the person you offended to ask questions or talk to someone you trust who can provide relevant perspective.

  • Move on. At the end of the day, most people are kind and forgiving if they sense your actions were unintentional and you express genuine interest in learning. Therefore, you need to be equally kind to yourself, dust yourself off and move on without dwelling.

Being on the receiving end of a diversity faux pas is challenging as well. It is difficult to balance wanting to speak up with not wanting the situation to turn into something you did not intend. Use these tips to address the situation:

  • Recognize that you control your emotions and reactions. Being on the receiving end of a diversity faux pas is stressful. How we perceive or respond to these experiences impacts our well-being from our emotional health to physical health and sense of safety. For those reasons, only you must decide how you want to respond, knowing what is best for your well-being. 
  • Ask for clarification or repeat what you heard before responding (if you choose to).  Often what is being said or done isn’t 100% clear to you, so ask the person to repeat themselves or clarify what they are trying to say. In doing so, the person may realize that they may have said something inappropriate or you may better understand where they are coming from. The outcome will inform what to do next.
  • Share from your perspective. Explain why what someone said or did was wrong, hurtful or harmful to you from your perspective. Refrain from speaking on behalf of a larger community. Remember that it is not your job to teach, so simply sharing how you were impacted and why is enough to provide the other person an opportunity to further engage or learn if they choose to.
  • Find support. Depending on where you are in your career and who you work for, reporting incidences of bias and discrimination to human resources or your manager may be an option for you. If you don’t feel safe or don’t want to bring attention to an incident, connect with friends, family, a community group, or someone else you feel safe to share your experiences with to help minimize confusion, restore your calm and confidence and determine an appropriate course of action.

Diversity mistakes and blunders are inevitable. Being willing to share your example with others – whether your are the offender or offended – as evidence that you can survive, learn and move forward will encourage others to not hold back from engaging across diversity out of fear of making mistakes or fear of not knowing what to do when one is made.

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Beth Ridley is a former corporate executive turned organizational transformation consultant, speaker and author. Beth combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to partner with leaders to transform workplace cultures to better achieve their vision and goals. Beth’s work is featured in national publications and she frequently delivers keynotes and workshops at events around the world. Beth lives with her husband and three children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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