2/23/2021 Community Building: Engaging in Difficult Conversations panel discussion | Questions AND Answers

Of the questions asked during the Employee Assembly Community Building: Engaging in Difficult Conversations panel discussion, held on 2/23/2021, the following were responded to by members of the panel:

What is the best approach for dealing productively with supervisors who express sexist views or who treat women in a disrespectful or degrading way? For my wife, this has caused very deep wounds that affect every area of her life. She has been called out for mistakes in a demeaning way in front of other team members. Many women have left the center where she works because of the mistreatment by men.

ANGELA WINFIELD: I can-- I'm sorry. I can start. And Mary, if you want to fill in for me? So this situation that's being described here is something that should be addressed. And I don't know that dialogue and direct dialogue with the supervisor would be the most appropriate situation. So first off, what I'd say is for your wife, not that she is the source of the problem concerned, but making sure that she has the support that she needs-- so making sure that she's utilizing the available resources, including the faculty/staff assistance program and those types of things that are available. The other thing that I would recommend in this situation-- because sometimes for difficult, challenging situations, especially workplace ones and ones that involve supervisors, where there are power dynamics involved, you can always reach out and solicit a third-party intervention to help facilitate some of these conversations. So for instance, we do have the bias reporting system, the bias incident reporting system, where all sorts of bias, alleged discrimination, or alleged harassment can be reported. And it will be triaged by the appropriate office that can then work with you and discuss your options and help facilitate some of these conversations. Mary, did I leave anything out? Or would you like to add anything?

MARY OPPERMAN: That was fabulous. Thanks, Angela. Just to build a teeny tiny bit on that because that was a great answer, I do think that when you're in a profound or acute situation at the workplace, that the skills you need to traverse that are slightly different than the ones that we're talking about now, because that power differential exists. And there might be a specific issue that is underlying that needs to be addressed. So what I would recommend is that you use the tools that Angela gave to move through the current situation and then hopefully open the dialogue about understanding why this has happened and how to avoid this in the future-- so sort of a two-parter. Kind of get through the issue at hand. And then hopefully, with that outside help, loop back around to talk about the climate in the organization.

REGINALD WHITE: I also wanted to just add, this is where I think that the question of where our values come from and how we get to the place where we begin to express points of view that somehow are harmful to other people. One of the things that just came up in the national press is-- and this goes back to socialization. So many of us grew up or our children grew up watching Jim Henson's Muppets. And they've recently started to stream all the seasons of their show or their shows on Disney Plus. And they've now started to put a disclaimer that says many of the things that appear in some of the shows are offensive and shouldn't have been done when they were done. And they want to just acknowledge that it's there. But these kinds of things, such a popular show within our culture teaching children various ideas, this is how these ideas start to come about. And so part of the process in terms of understanding what's happening when we're trying to deal with it, in addition to all the things that Mary and Angela said in terms of our processes, is also, from the human perspective, understanding both if I'm the person who's the offender, but also if I'm the person who's been offended, beginning to have that dialogue, as Adi said, around what is the human experience that creates this context where I have these points of view and I express them in a way that feels appropriate to me, but may not be appropriate to the person who's on the other end. And how do I then use that experience to grow as a human being and to change my way of being such that it is more inclusive, because that's also our challenge in our environment is that many of us, we're socialized to act in ways that are offensive to other people because those other people weren't in our experience and because there is huge institutional pressure and community pressure to have these points of view. And if we're going to continue to sort of grow, it's to begin to understand the consequence of holding those points of view on the environments that we're, in this case, our workplace.

ANGELA WINFIELD: Absolutely. And I just want to say something quickly to underline what Reginald just said, because he mentioned some terms about the cycle of socialization and how do we get these ideas. I'm going to shamelessly plug, but it is a requirement that folks take the Advancing DEI course. But if you want to learn more about this and you want to understand what is Reginald talking about, socialization, and how is this embedded, course three of that program dives into the cycle of socialization, how that shows up. And it also discusses the cycle of liberation and how we get ourselves out of that cycle so we can begin to see some of these problematic ideas that we hold and how it may be causing unintended harm to others-- so course three for that.

How does Dr. Grabiner-Keinan's framework of dialogue, debate, and discussion relate to the field of law? Is there space for communication beyond debate? And what might that look like?

NELSON TEBBE: Hi. Thanks for that question. I think the questioner wants to know whether there's space within the legal apparatus itself for forms of communication other than debate. That's how I'm interpreting the question. And I think this person is just curious about that. And I can see why, because legal structures and processes are often designed around outcomes. And all that matters is what a decision maker is going to do. So the advocates are kind of trying to persuade that decision maker to kind of rule or act in their favor. And a lot gets lost in that kind of constrained form of communication. One thing that gets lost often is the voices of the people that are affected, because lawyers are representing them. So people don't get to tell their own story oftentimes in litigation. And that can be a missed opportunity, because a lot of times, people care about being heard and the ability to tell their own story in their own words more than they care about the outcome. There's been really interesting empirical research by Tom Tyler at Yale University and others about this. So the legal system is kind of missing a lot of what Dr. Grabiner-Keinan rightly kind of is praising about other forms of interaction, especially dialogue but also, to some degree, maybe debate. But to the degree that what we're talking about instead is does law place any constraints on the choice that Dr. Grabiner-Keinan put before us, I think the answer is no. We can all choose among these three forms of interaction in our daily workplace interactions without constraint from law. In other words, all these forms of interaction are permitted. And so it's up to us to decide which ones do we think are most productive. And there, I think she's very persuasive that dialogue has some real benefits, even though it can be very difficult to engage in.

ADI GRABINER-KEINAN: Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I think-- well, we actually started working with law school students around dialogue. And it's really interesting to see the potential and the opportunities that surface when you introduce this form of communication and start reimagining certain interactions and dynamics. And I guess what I want to say is that it's important to encourage ourselves to reimagine our fields and to really examine the way we communicate and how we want to communicate and how it might look like if we have somewhat different goals in mind, somewhat different attention. And when we are intentional about the way we show up and the way we see the other, I see a lot of potential there in many different fields, law and others, to interact in a different way, to surface certain narratives, to surface certain understandings about who we are as human beings, as Reginald mentioned, and what we believe in and what informs our beliefs and our assumptions. A lot of interesting things happen when we really dialogue, when we really open ourselves to this kind of interaction.

Could the panelists please discuss how to handle situations in which you see or experience a microaggression or other non-inclusive behavior at work? Many of us want to respond, and we have been encouraged to do so. But how do we do that effectively?

ANGELA WINFIELD: I will start us off on that one. So this is a really great question, and it's an important one. And there's a lot of factors to consider. So one that we've already talked about is the power dynamics and what's going on. But you have some options in this case. One is to respectfully raise the issue during, in the moment. Or you can also do it after it's occurred. So for instance, you can approach the person who either experienced the microaggression and say, I just noticed such and such happen during this meeting. What was your interpretation of that? How did that feel to you? So you can engage in dialogue with the person who was impacted by it to make sure that your interpretation was similar to theirs. You could also approach the person who engaged in the microaggression and ask them in a curious way. And this is kind of the key thing. It's about curiosity and understanding. What did you mean by this statement? Or can we pause here for a second? I heard you say such and such and such. Here's how I interpreted it. What did you actually mean? Is that what you meant by it? So that's a place where you can engage in those kind of dialogue skills and thinking about what is your purpose. Going back to these slides and framework, what are you engaging in here? Are you highlighting the issue so that you can explain from your perspective and your understanding of what happened and how that landed for you and it could have landed for other folks? Or are you trying to debate, which is probably not the best option in that circumstance? The other thing that you can do is if you're not comfortable raising the issue and calling the person in or out in the moment or afterwards, again, you can utilize other resources and reach out for support through the bias incident reporting system, where we have accountability conversations all the time with folks around things like this, how to have it themselves or intervening and having those conversations. And also, again, another plug for Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cornell-- the course that will be released next week, course five, is all about speaking up when we see things that happen that are not aligned with Cornell's values. And there's a lot of options in that particular module of the program. So I encourage you to dive into there. Really engage with the practice exercises and some of the reflections in there. That will help you get your footing, because you do have options when something happens. And it needs to be something that's aligned with your personality, your values. Sometimes, you may use humor. Sometimes, you may be more pointed. But there are options. And it is such an important thing to do. And we know that it is impactful not only to the individual who's directly impacted by it, but also by folks who witness and see that happening on a team. So it is an important thing. It takes courage, and it also takes practice.

REGINALD WHITE: Just I add to that that it helps to understand microaggressions as a concept. Essentially, a microaggression is a behavior that marginalizes an individual from a marginalized group. And so what ends up happening is the person who's doing it often may not be aware. And so the purpose in terms of this goes back to Adi's comment around which kind of language are we engaging in and what kind of approach are we using. If in fact the purpose is dialogue, then Angela's points around courage and inquiry and curiosity, et cetera, that creates the opportunity for learning, for growth, for changing behavior, because I'm not in the space where I'm having to debate where I'm trying to change your opinion or whether I'm trying to make you right or wrong. It's raising an awareness that the thing you're doing is having an impact. And to Angela's point, the question is, is that your intention? Is that what you were actually trying to do? And often, people will say no. Sometimes, people will say yes. They're actually intending to harm someone else. In that case, it's not a microaggression. It's a real aggression. But it's important then to sort of, again, think about how do we approach these things with the mindset that, in fact, a microaggression has nuance to it and therefore, from a place of curiosity, understanding both the impact on the person who was the victim of it-- and if you are that person, understanding your perspective-- but also understanding what was behind that situation. The other thing I'll say about that is intention doesn't exonerate someone. So someone can't say, well, I didn't mean to hurt you. Therefore, I'm free. It's beginning to take responsibility for our behaviors and our actions, even when they have unintended consequences, and choosing to do something different in the future.

ADI GRABINER-KEINAN: Just one tiny thing to add, because this is all great-- and it's not about the very specific interaction at the moment. I agree with Angela and Reginald. These are great tips and ways to practice this kind of work. I think we need to also think about the culture we are creating and participating in. How can we normalize this kind of intervening, this kind of interaction when we feel comfortable to ask questions, we feel comfortable to talk about intent and impact? How can we show up as vulnerable employees and say, you know what, I have a bias against this and that? Or I need to check the stereotypes I believe in. Or in this situation, I said something in a way that probably made you feel 1, 2, 3. So the way we show up, the way we encourage others to show up, can create a culture where it's normal, OK, and legitimate to ask these questions and to explore them together, again, with curiosity and empathy and understanding that this is a difficult process that all of us need to do together. If it's only one person that is courageous enough to say the thing, this is wonderful. But it's not enough as a community. It's not going to make the systemic change we are interested in.

REGINALD WHITE: Can I just add to that? When we normalize it, then it doesn't become difficult. When we make it a part of our culture, when we make it a way of being, then all of a sudden, this feels natural to us. We engage with each other from that place of learning. We engage from that place of being curious and growing as human beings because of our experiences with each other.

How do we start the process of this open communication in this decentralized environment? How do we go about making this part of the Cornell culture to promote a safe environment to have a dialogue without the fear of retaliation from others who may not be open to listening?

MARY OPPERMAN: So I'm not on the expert panel, but I'll get us started. And then our panel can fill in the rest. So I think that's a very good point that this is not a hierarchical place. And we don't really have a sort of top-down approach to things. And that's both wonderful in many ways and can be kind of limiting when we're trying to make a big change in our culture. So my recommendation is to start small. Start where you are in the place and in the team that you feel the most comfortable with. And practice. Learn. Take the courses that we've offered. Seek some advice. If you have a specific issue that you want to have emerge, don't feel that you have to do it on your own. Reach out to some of the experts that you've met and some of the places that we've shared. But start where you spend the most amount of your time. And then with shared learning and shared conversations, those will build. And so if those are happening across the campus, they will eventually come together to intersect to create an openness to this way of communicating and dialoguing with one another. But let me turn it over to those who know.

ANGELA WINFIELD: I think that's exactly right, Mary. We talk about your locus of control and starting in the space where you are. So looking at that and if this is something-- because culture shifts-- especially in organizations as large as Cornell and as decentralized, change takes a long time. Culture change takes time. So there is a level of patience that's needed. But if you in your areas where you can influence how dialogue happens, how folks respond happens, start using these tools in the spaces where you feel most comfortable-- if you're leading a team, if you happen to be a manager, using it with your team there, if you're happening to be a part of a committee or a work group, introducing some of these ideas there. And as it spreads, it will begin to connect up again and start to help shift the culture and normalize this sort of behavior so we can create a better sense of belonging.

REGINALD WHITE: I think in that same vein, this recognizing that we're a large place and a small place at the same time, meaning we're a small community. And therefore, what one person learns in one part of the university, even though we're decentralized, often, family members work together. Neighbors work together or work in different parts of the university. And so there are opportunities for us to grow with each other because of the nature of our community. And so that's an opportunity to accelerate the process of culture change, because we recognize that within our environment, there's something unique and wonderful about the fact that we're all connected. We're likely to see each other in Wegmans, when we can go back to Wegmans. We're likely to have family members who also work at Cornell. And that opportunity, sharing that information, then expands its opportunity for growth in the community.