How I responded to a racist comment

Note: I originally sent this out as part of a newsletter. It got such a positive response that I decided to share it here as well.

As racist remarks go, this one was fairly mild.

I was driving in a car with an older family member. (I’m going to call him “Joe” for the purposes of this post.) Over the car radio came the news that “Uncle Ben’s” rice would be changing its name to “Ben’s Original” because of racist associations with the original name and logo design.  

Out of nowhere, Joe got really agitated. There was nothing wrong with the name “Uncle Ben’s,” he insisted. No one cared about the name. No one was asking for the name to be changed. I started to protest that, yes, actually, there was a lot of support to change the name. Growing more and more agitated, he answered that those people need to find better things to do than protest about names. And anyway, “giving in” to this kind of request is only “pouring oil on the fire.”

My first thought was, really? You don’t understand why the name “Uncle Ben’s” is racist?

And my second thought was, why do you care so much about how a multi-million dollar food company markets their products?

So while I was disturbed by Joe’s reaction I was also really perplexed by it. There was nothing in any of our previous conversations to hint at these views.

Now I faced a choice. I was also starting to get agitated. (And there was nowhere to go, I was a passenger in his car.) Do I avoid conflict by using one of the many “conflict avoidance” tactics I have mastered? I could easily remain silent, change the subject, or make some soothing remark about “agreeing to disagree.” Or do I continue this uncomfortable conversation and risk damaging my relationship with Joe? 

I made a quick calculation. I knew I was an important person in his life. I knew he would listen to me. More importantly, despite his bizarre and out-of-proportion reaction to the name change, I knew he was a good person and someone who tries to do the right thing.

And so I explained why I thought the name had to change. I told him about the racist history of whites calling black men “Uncle” to avoid using the honorific “Mr.” I said that the label design harked back to a time when black men could get only low-paying jobs, and that we didn’t need a visual reminder of those times.  

Gradually the tension between us diffused. Joe listened to me. I would like to tell you that I changed his mind, but honestly I don’t know if I did. What I do know is that I felt better in speaking up than I would have in remaining silent.

What happened the last time you heard a racist comment?

About the image: © 2020 Mars Foods & Affiliates.

A Mediator’s Bookshelf

No matter what I’m reading, I try to see if it can help me better understand conflict. Insights can come from unlikely places if we are open to them. None of these books is specifically about mediation, although one is co-authored by a mediator. All have informed my thinking about conflict and my dispute resolution practice

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo

Calls for white people to educate themselves about racism have come in the wake of police shootings and violence against African American men and women. While this book is flawed, it is a good place to start.

DiAngelo is a sociologist, and so her perspective on racism is a welcome change from psychological or individualistic accounts. She offers a clear explanation of structural or systematic racism. Racism not simply a matter of racist or ignorant individuals; it is equally something embedded in our laws and practices. She also draws on years of experience as a corporate “diversity trainer” to provide vivid examples of what she calls “white fragility” – the defensive manoeuvres that some individuals undertake to resist the idea that racism is real, and that their actions might support it.

White Fragility is written from an American perspective. (Canadian readers may be amused that participants in DiAngelo’s US-based workshops have told her, “I’m not racist. I’m Canadian.”) While Canadians are not immune to racism, its contours are different here than in the U.S. DiAngelo’s focus is anti-black racism, and she has little to say about anti-indigenous racism.

In my experience as a Toronto-based mediator, race is a complicating factor in many conflicts and failing to understand this can be a barrier to resolution. I have seen race play out in different ways in personal injury mediation, community disputes, workplace conflict, and restorative justice conferences. More than ever, dispute resolution professionals need to make the effort to understand the systemic nature of racism and white privilege. White Fragility deserves a place on the mediator’s bookshelf.

Less than Human: Why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others by David Livingstone Smith

If you looked at the title and thought, “That sounds depressing,” you’re right. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith draws on research in social science, history, and evolutionary psychology to explain why human beings de-humanize others. That is, how we can come to see our fellow human beings not as creatures like ourselves but as some kind of lesser beings. Dehumanizing others in this way is all too often the first step on the path to mistreatment.

Livingston provides a wealth of examples. The chapter on the de-humanization of North American native peoples by European colonizers is particularly relevant. These events seem far in the past, yet their reverberations extend to the present time. As I knew not much more than the outlines of this history, the material here was particularly eye-opening.

This book reinforced for me how important it is to listen to how people talk about those with whom they are in conflict, and whenever possible to reinforce the humanity of those on the “other side.”

Virtuous Violence: Hurting and killing to create, sustain, end, and honor social relations by Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai

These authors offer a radically different analysis than Livingstone Smith, and indeed from most others who have thought about conflict and violence. Fiske and Rai argue that the motive for much violence is the regulation of social relations, and that people who commit violence feel that their cause is righteous – even morally required. They provide evidence from a variety of different cultures and historical eras.

People in conflict are rarely at their best, and as mediators we’re sometimes required to understand the perspective of people who hold positions that we may find offensive. This book helped me understand how actions can look “right” from the inside while being morally problematic to those on the outside.

Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones

Did you know that human beings are the only animals to share food outside of our immediate social groups? Jones, an archeologist of food remains, investigates the history of the meal in order to understand why. He takes us from a prehistoric communal butchery of a wild horse after it is felled by a hunting party, to the emergence of the restaurant in 18th century Europe, to a contemporary solitary diner with a newspaper and TV dinner.

Feast prompted me to think about the ways in which humans come together, cooperate, and celebrate. Attention to the social dimension of food (as opposed to its nutritional value) gives us a new perspective on lavish buffets set up in mediation spaces.

Brainfishing: A Practice Guide to Questioning Skills by Gary Furlong and Jim Harrison

If you’ve had the pleasure of being in one of Gary Furlong’s courses, it will be no surprise that Brainfishing is lively, engaging, and full of practical wisdom. Asking questions is at the heart of mediation. We ask questions to unpack parties’ positions, understand their interests, and build rapport. The authors draw on recent research in neuroscience as well as their years of experience in mediation, negotiation, and consulting.

Brainfishing is well worth reading through, and also having to hand as a refresher.

About the image: “Part of a bookshelf containing books by ancient philosophers” a photo by Roman Eisele, Wiki Media Commons

Communication Breakdown: Why we can’t get along

I’m often called into a situation where a communication breakdown has occurred. People have stopped talking to one another or refuse to talk without the presence of a manager or third party. 

The reasons why this might happen are… countless. In this video, I talk about reasons to keep talking, or to resume talking if you have stopped.

The goal of resuming a conversation is not necessarily to change the other person’s mind. That might not be possible. But what is often possible, in the face of disagreement, is mutual understanding and respectful acknowledgement of one another’s position. And that can happen only with discussion.

If you’re in a silent stalemate – with a friend, relative, neighbour, or business associate – try re-starting the conversation. Maybe start by sending a link to this video.

Lessons Learned: Julie Payette Harassment Allegations

What we can learn about “toxic” workplaces from the Rideau Hall complaints

Within the federal civil service, working with the Governor-General at Rideau Hall should be a plum position. Instead, news reports suggest that routine verbal harassment created a “toxic” workplace. I should note that these allegations have not been proven.

Here are the lessons that business owners, managers, and HR leaders can take away.

One: Make sure everyone understands the expectations for a respectful workplace

The sources who spoke to the CBC report that Governor-General Julie Payette and her secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo yelled at, belittled, and publicly humiliated employees. People were seen leaving the office in tears. One report described how trips abroad were particularly stressful for all. In-flight debriefs on the way home could last “hours” while Payette verbally attacked employees over what she considered sub-standard work. Di Lorenzo apparently accused people of being “lazy and incompetent.”

Such behaviour is clearly unacceptable in the workplace. It is the responsibility of leaders – business owners, managers, and HR personnel – to make sure that everyone understands expectations for respectful behaviour. (You might think that we can assume people would know, for example, that just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can yell at people who report to you. Unfortunately I’ve been working in this field long enough to know that this isn’t the case.)

Two: Structural factors can make harassment harder to address

Employees at Rideau Hall who felt harassed had a few options: They could take it up with the HR department, or with their direct supervisor, or with the Ombudsperson. The problem was that all of these roads lead directly to Di Lorenzo, the Governor-General’s secretary and her close friend. (And who, you may remember, is herself accused of workplace harassment.) Employees felt like they had no place to turn. This made an already stressful situation even more stressful.

This is a structural issue I see frequently in smaller organizations and sometimes in large ones as well: employees who are harassed do not feel that they have anywhere to turn. The person they are supposed to come to with concerns is not genuinely independent and is seen as a friend or associate of the person perpetrating the harassment.

Three: Employees will leave (and not just the ones who experience harassment directly)

In the Communications section alone, five employees have left for good and two have taken leaves of absence. One was quoted as saying, “Life’s too short. I don’t want to come to work in the morning and spend the day feeling like I’m going to cry or not feeling like I could speak up.”

People will leave a good-paying job if it causes them significant stress. Most people don’t want to go into a workplace that has too much “drama.” It is upsetting to see colleagues being treated poorly. Those who aren’t being harassed will wonder, “Am I next?”

Four: Word will get out

Workplace harassment in your organization may not make the national news, but people do talk. In larger organizations, people will know which departments are particularly dysfunctional. In smaller industries, people know which companies have bad reputations. Tools like Glassdoor make it easy to spread the word.

Five: “Abrasive” managers often feel that their actions are justified

According to reports, Payette’s “outbursts” were often a result of being upset with the quality of someone’s work and the belief that she “has to do everything herself” because everyone else is incompetent.

Such sentiments are a clear indication that a manager needs coaching in how to manage effectively and respectfully. Workplace harassment guidelines are meant to protect everyone, not just those who are highly competent. People don’t improve their job performance when they are harassed. In fact there are plenty of indications that the opposite is true – employees who are harassed feel stressed and under pressure, which makes their job performance worse.

Finally, some MPs and government ministers are calling for an investigation into the allegations against Payette and Di Lorenzo. This is a high-profile workplace and many people are paying attention. Whatever the response, those involved have a responsibility to get it right.

About the image:  Photo by Johanie Maheu, Wikimedia Commons

Black Lives Matter

Something new – Anti-racist reading group

Like many of you, I’ve been outraged and saddened by the recent violence against people of colour, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

One of the messages I keep hearing from racialized communities is that white people have work to do, and that work begins with self-examination. This could mean recognizing one’s own unconscious biases or trying to understand how white privilege contributes to sustaining racism.

This work is particularly important to me as a mediator in a multicultural society. Many of the conflicts I’m brought into have a racial component.

After reflecting on how I might be able to contribute and to do some of this work myself, I decided to organize and facilitate a group to read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, a book that appears on many anti-racism reading lists.

My plan is for us to meet on line once a week for about an hour to read and discuss one chapter.

Rather than charge a fee to join the group, I’m asking participants who are able to make a contribution to a non-profit working to improve the lives of black or indigenous Canadians. (For example, Black Lives Matter Canada, Legacy of Hope Foundation, U for Change, or Black Legal Action Centre.)

If you are interested in joining me in reading and discussing White Fragility, please fill out the form on this page

Stay safe everyone.

About the image:  Photo by James Eades, Unsplash.

Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

I will just say it: There is no magic formula to ensure a highly creative remote team. 

If you lack the foundations, moving a team to virtual meetings will not suddenly make everyone more creative. The good news is that if a team already works together effectively, then there is a good chance they will continue to come up with creative solutions even if they can’t meet in person.

Let’s review the basics: Two key features make creative and collaborative problem-solving much more likely. First (and most important) you must have a culture where people feel that their input is welcome, and that their ideas will be give fair consideration. If you have somehow given the impression that critical feedback is not welcome, people will hesitate to speak up.

The second factor in a creative team is diversity. In particular, you want team members with a diversity of experience, viewpoints, and temperaments. If everyone around the table is pretty similar (say male, white, 40-ish, wearing chinos, grew up in Toronto), you might want to consider expanding the team to get a greater variety of outlook and attitude.

Let’s assume that the basics are in place. Moving to remote team meetings will still pose challenges. For one thing, attention spans are shorter when people aren’t in the same physical space. If the meeting seems dull, people will be tempted to minimize the meeting window on their computer screen and check email or look up news reports instead. On top of this, there are all the distractions of home, plus less accountability. There is no one beside you to notice that you’re not fully engaged. For these reasons, I would suggest that remote meetings be shorter than in-person meetings. (Most meetings are too long anyway – but that is a topic for another day!)

Second, it is harder to have genuine personal contact in virtual as opposed to in-person meetings. The person facilitating the meeting therefore has to make an extra effort to have people connect with one another. One way to do this is to start the meeting with a “check-in.” Have each person answer a question like, “How is the day/week going for you so far?” or “What has been your biggest win this week?” or “What is your biggest challenge at work right now?” or even “How did you spend the weekend?” The meeting chair should answer first. Others will take their cue from the first person who responds and likely answer at similar length and with a similar demeanor. If the chair answers in a joking way, that is likely how others will respond as well. 

Finally, the person chairing or facilitating the meeting should make a practice of repeating and summarizing what has been said. This will help keep everyone on track and focused, as well as help everyone catch-up if technical problems cause glitches. (Obviously, use your judgment. Don’t interrupt a good discussion to repeat and summarize – wait for a natural break.)

While no one knows exactly what the post-Covid workplace will be like, every indication is that remote work (and remote meetings) will be more common. So it make sense to master best practices and get the best from your team as soon as possible.

About the image:  Dali Atomicus, Salvador Dalí and Philippe Halsman (1948): Wikipedia

“We tried that already.” Handling Objections during a Meeting

You’re chairing a team meeting and you ask for suggestions. Farrah, relatively new to the group, makes a proposal. She’s reading from prepared notes and it is clear that she’s put some thought into this. You’re about to thank her when a voice comes from the other end of the table. It’s Sam, a 10-year veteran of the organization. “We already tried that and it didn’t work,” he says in a weary voice, sighing audibly. Farrah looks down, crestfallen. The others shift uncomfortably in their seats and stare at the table in front of them. What do you do?

How you handle Sam’s objection will have ramifications beyond today’s meeting. Some of the factors you have to navigate:

  • Farrah deserves recognition for preparing for the meeting and speaking up. You want to encourage her to keep offering ideas and suggestions.
  • Sam might very well be right. In most teams there is one person who can be counted on for a critical viewpoint. If this person can express their criticisms in a respectful manner, he or she is a great asset to any organization. However  if this person shares their views in a way that undermines others, he or she will create resentment and lower morale. Some managers will push to silence or remove someone like Sam. If Sam’s behaviour crosses the line into workplace harassment, you do need to do something. If the behaviour is not so severe, removing Sam sends the wrong message about critical engagement. Every team needs a Sam (or Samantha).
  • What about the rest of the team? If you show irritation with Sam or otherwise discourage him from speaking up, you risk sending the message that it is better to keep one’s opinion to oneself. The team may not like Sam but he is still their colleague and you are their manager. A public scolding could turn them against you very quickly. 
  • Sam may need some coaching, but you can hardly take care of that in the moment. You need to send the message that critical feedback is welcome, as long as it is delivered respectfully.

How to work with the Sams and Samanthas of the world is a bigger topic. When you are faced with dismissive criticism in the moment, the best thing to do is to lead by example. Be curious, open to feedback, and respectful to everyone. Here’s what that might look like:

Repeat Sam’s objection, “You say that we already tried that and it didn’t work.”

Draw him out. Ask him to elaborate. “Tell me more. Please remind everyone of what happened when we tried that.”

Repeat back and summarize the details.

Turn back to Farrah. Give her a chance to defend her proposal. Ask, “How is your suggestion different from what we tried in the past?” If Farrah really is suggesting something that has already been tried, ask, “Have the circumstances changed? Should we try it again?”

Ask the rest of the team if they have anything to add.

Thank Farrah, Sam, and anyone else who spoke up.

A goldsmith in his shop

Trust and Remote Work: How to do it Right

I was recently brought in to do an assessment of a department with very low morale and high staff turnover. I found one of the main sources of dissatisfaction to be the remote work policy.

That’s not exactly correct. The organization had a generous policy. Unfortunately the department manager refused to follow it.

This manager insisted that people show up at their desks at 9 and stay until 4:30 everyday. She was, frankly, a control freak and allowing people to work from home made it more difficult for her to control them.

Attitudes to remote work vary widely. Not everyone thinks it is a good thing, and some industries and jobs are not well-suited to it. Yet every indication is that the future will bring more remote work as companies do the math and calculate the possible savings in real estate costs. And more people, having had the experience of skipping their commute and working from home, will want to continue working remotely.

This brings me to a thorny topic: trust. Trust is probably the biggest barrier to successful remote work. If employees are not on-site, employers may be suspicious that they are not putting in a full day’s work. The flipside is resentment by employees who may be working just as hard or harder as they do at the office, but feel constantly monitored or micromanaged. Add to this mix a remote work policy that is unclear or unevenly applied and you have the makings of an unhappy workplace.

How can employers ensure that the work gets done when their staff are not physically present? And how can employees be sure that their efforts will be recognized?

We usually think of trust in personal terms. We trust some people but not others. Yet in a workplace setting, thinking of trust only as a personal attribute leads to problems in the long run. I’ve seen enough managers make the wrong choice in deciding which employees to trust to make me think that none of us may have very good judgement in this regard.

Instead of deciding which employees are “trustworthy,” set out clear expectations for everyone and put your trust in a system that tracks employee’s results – not the amount of time they spend at their desk.

Whatever system you come up with will depend on your particular industry. If you have different people doing similar tasks, you will need a way to compare them to one another. If you have a split workforce, with some working remotely and others on-site, you will also want to compare their results. Just make sure everyone knows what is going on, what outcomes you are tracking, and why. This is a case where more transparency is better than less.

I’ve heard about companies that make employees who are working remotely “sign in” at specific times and remain on-line for a set number of hours. Unless this is absolutely necessary for employees to accomplish their tasks, I would avoid such a system. First, there will always be people smart enough to get around whatever system of surveillance you put in place. Faking actual results is much harder. Second, one of the main benefits to employees of remote work is the ability to structure their time as they see fit. Some people are happy to be at their desk by 7 am, so that they can take their dog for a long walk mid-day. Some people need frequent breaks but are ready to put in a longer day. Forcing everyone into the same rigid timeframe removes one of the main benefits to employees of working off-site.

Next: Remote Work and Creative Collaboration

About the image: Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop (Public Domain, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Dealing with the doubters

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • Coronavirus is being blown out of proportion.
  • The flu kills more people every year. This social distancing is over the top.
  • If I get coronavirus, I get it – nothing much I can do about it. I’m at low-risk anyway.
  • A virus isn’t going to stop me enjoying life and seeing my friends.

Maybe there are people in your family or social circle who express these views. In this post, I offer some practical guidelines for respectful disagreement over how to respond to a public health emergency.

(If you’re one of the “doubters” yourself – keep reading. I won’t refer to what the experts say about protecting yourself and others, and I won’t scold. My guidelines can help with any strong disagreement, regardless of your position.)

If you’re trying to protect yourself and your family during a public health emergency, interacting with people who don’t share your sense of the risk, or who refuse to follow public health measures, is extremely frustrating. How to respond to your neighbour who wants to send her child over for a playdate at your place? What about your parents who refuse to cancel the weekly family dinners?­­

The single most important factor to get through this kind of conflict is to adjust your own mindset. The key is to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot control. A moment’s reflection will tell you that “other people” is at the top of the list of things you cannot control. The sooner you understand this, and the sooner you are at peace with it, the better.

The next thing you have to come to grips with is that (generally speaking) a better understanding of facts does not change people’s behaviour. For example, smokers tend to be equally informed about the health risks of smoking as non-smokers. The knowledge doesn’t help them quit. Most people who are overweight are fully aware that they should eat less and exercise more. Explaining the health risks of carrying on as normal under coronavirus is probably a waste of time. The risks and possible consequences have been repeated frequently.

Understanding that you can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, you must focus on what you can control – namely, your own thoughts and actions. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Decide on the measures you will take to protect yourself and your family. What boundaries will you observe?
  2. Do not get into arguments with people who have different boundaries. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it will make it harder for them to back down eventually if they change their views.
  3. If you are challenged or drawn into a discussion of your boundaries, it is fine to simply state your position and keep it at that.
  4. How much of an explanation you offer for your position will depend on your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. What you say to close family members who disagree will differ from what you say to casual acquaintances.
    • To the father of your child’s friend who suggests a playdate: “We’re keeping the kids at home, and we’ve told them no visitors.”
    • To your client who wants an in-person meeting: “As long as the public health advisory is in force, I am holding all meetings by video conference.”
    • To your parents who want the whole gang to come over for dinner: “We love you and miss you – and we don’t want anyone to get sick. As soon as the danger has passed we’ll get back to our regular dinners. Think of how we would feel if you got the virus because of one of us.”

What all of these responses have in common is that they are respectful, they do not attempt to persuade, and they do not invite further discussion.

  1. If someone “won’t take no for an answer” or tries to draw you into an argument, simply say, “It looks like we see things differently” (or some equivalent) and either change the subject or end the conversation.
  2. Whatever boundaries you set need to be clear and consistent. They are your boundaries – you don’t need anyone else’s approval and you don’t have to justify them or convince anyone else that you’re right.

(What I have said about the importance of mindset draws on my understanding of Stoic philosophy, and in particular The Handbook by Epictetus.)

About the image: Salvador Dali walking his pet anteater in Paris. Source: Open Culture

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Sharing space when you’re working from home

A classic cause of conflict is competition for scarce resources – be it sources of fuel, arable land, or access to fresh water. Today, as many of us adjust to the challenge of working from home, the “scarce resources” are more likely to be peace and quiet.

Like most conflicts over scarce resources, conflicts over how to share living and workspace can be resolved through negotiation. (Mediation is just negotiation facilitated by a neutral third party.)

Sit down with your family or housemates and decide the following:

  • Who will work where?
  • How will you handle it if one needs quiet and the other has to attend virtual meetings?
  • What will you do if one person needs to make a confidential call?
  • Will you eat lunch together?
  • What if one of you is working at the kitchen table and the other decides to make a smoothie using the fancy blender that is louder than a jackhammer?
  • How will you share childcare?

Look for creative solutions and be prepared to make trade-offs. If you need to take a call while your housemate is working quietly, can you step outside or onto the balcony? Can you attend that video conference from your car?

None of this is rocket science.  However it can require adjustment if you’re not used to sharing working space with another person.

More important than the details of whatever arrangement you decide upon is making a mental adjustment to the new reality. No one knows when things will be back to “normal” or what the new normal will look like. Assume that you’ll have to share space for the foreseeable future and make a long-term plan.

About the image: Husband and Wife. Source: Lorenzo Lotto, Wikimedia Commons