Unconscious bias begins when the thinking brain develops. The brain instantly discerns what it has been conditioned to understand as right from wrong, good from bad, and safe from dangerous based on past experiences—what we were taught and discovered from what we read, heard, or seen based on race, class, religion, education, gender, income level, and other social identities passed on to us. This makes us all judgmental, affecting how we act, even when we desire to be inclusive.
Without instant preferences and judgments, it would be difficult to get out of bed every morning. It would be paralyzing to have to think through each choice and action. You are making micro-decisions almost every moment, even as you read this post (are you irritated or curious?). Most reactions and decisions are made subconsciously.
Therefore, unconscious bias must be brought to light for people to consider their behavior. If groups agree to allow a firm but respectful “calling out” when someone experiences a verbal or behavioral slight, it is possible to grow the acceptance of open discussion at work.
Those who speak up should assume the intent was not evil, just an oversight. The purpose of calling out is awareness, not punishment.
Creating a safe space where people are encouraged to stop and examine their behavior without needing to defend themselves is an important step in promoting change.
What can you do when your voice is ignored or judged without reason
When you are interrupted, ignored, or misunderstood, instead of getting angry, try the following techniques to shed light on the behavior without punishing those who brushed you off. You still might be chastised for calling attention to the behavior, but people will hear you anyway. In my experience, when you let people know that what they said or did felt dismissive, their behavior shifts over time.
Ask for what you need.
When interrupted, say the name of the transgressor to get their attention and then let them know you would like to ‘finish up’ your thought. Or put your hand up and say, “Please let me finish my thought. Then I’m happy to hear yours.”
When you share an idea that gets no response, assume you were misunderstood and say, “Please let me reframe my idea” and then restate the key point you want to make without any explanations. Then you can ask, “Does this make sense, or have I missed an important detail?”
Shine a light on the process
If the behavior continues, stop the conversation and ask everyone at the table if the process should allow for people to complete their thoughts without being interrupted, and if all ideas should be acknowledged before moving on.
This doesn’t make you a whiner, though some people will judge your directness based on their biases. Attempting to make meetings more effective is a strength.
Acknowledge others first
Before offering your idea, acknowledge the speaker before you by saying, “Joe made a great point and I would like to add on to that.” At least Joe will give you attention.
Gather support for inclusive actions
Seek out allies who will speak up for you when you are interrupted or ask you to explain your opinion when it is ignored. In my last job when I was the only woman on a leadership team, I asked this of a man who loved to champion my ideas. He was glad to help make others aware of their behavior when they interrupted or ignored my contribution.
What is the loss when some people aren’t heard?
Success in this fast-changing world requires all voices and ideas be heard and seriously considered. If you invite people to the table, why not hear them out? Listen to what they think whether you like them or their style. You might discover a brave, new way forward.
Susan Chira, The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women. New York Times: June 14, 2017.
Alice Robb, Why Men are Prone to Interrupting Women. Women in the World: March 19, 2015.
Jane Porter, You’re More Biased than You Think. Fast Company, October 5, 2014.
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