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Lior Locher

NIIT

Learning Consultant

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Reckoning with repair: Learning through diversity and inclusion training

When it comes to arguments about language, we need to recognise that repair is the key. In part three of their series on reckoning with DEI, Lior Locher and Dr Christy Allen explore the key components of repair and how we can work with them into diversity training.
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In the previous article of our content series on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training we explored reckoning with backlash.

We examined the words we feel we can use when we talk about DEI in our training programmes. And we argued for a pragmatic approach that both acknowledges and assesses risk and leans into using all the tools and words that remain available to us to create equitable, inclusive and safe workspaces. 

Here, we pick up that idea and demonstrate what that may look like. DEI has often gotten stuck in arguments about language because we stay at the site of rupture, rather than recognising that repair is the key – and a language that can be learned.  

Taking a cue from restorative justice practices, repair here is less about what did or didn’t happen and more about making things better. 

Extending that to DEI training programmes, a key aspect of repair is the learning that can be gained and applied to interpersonal skills, workplace processes and best practices to move forward. 

Repair ... is less about what did or didn’t happen and more about making things better

There’s life after “You can’t say anything anymore”  

Those pushing back against DEI often claim they “can’t say anything anymore” without offending someone. It’s one of those things people accept as a truism – but it’s worth untangling a bit. 

Making this claim actually shuts down conversation and draws attention away from the learning to be had. This moves us away from curiosity about why someone might want (or in fact really needs) you to be mindful in your speech and interactions to create an inclusive workplace. 

And it also assumes that there is no moment after a mistake or mis-step. As if we’ll all stay mired in the rupture, with someone labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which of course feels pretty threatening. 

It also doesn’t allow for humans being human in all their messiness, including making mistakes. In this framing, it would appear there is no way to move beyond that and to learn from that experience (without placing the burden of educating or facilitating repair onto the person(s) affected by the mistake). 

This is why it’s so important to ensure our learning in this space offers practical training and tools for learning how repair works. In addition to ensuring we’re not ceding our commitment to candour and learning, we also need to be proactive in demonstrating exactly how moving forward in a productive way can become a reality. 

Repair is a learned interpersonal skill

Designing scenarios using the components of effective repair

One of the ways we can drive real learning forward is through acknowledging repair is a learned interpersonal skill. It protects your workplace from harm and can foster belonging. In a previous article, we discussed the ways in which scenario-based learning helps people learn how not to stop at feelings of failure. 

Let’s say we have a training scenario that opens like this: as a new employee is onboarded, a colleague, Sam, leans over and whispers: "Is Chris a guy or a girl? They have kind of an androgynous look".

In this scenario, Sam's questioning of Chris's gender because of their "androgynous" appearance relies on outmoded language and assumptions. Quizzing someone's identity based on appearances perpetuates bias. Additionally, the use of "guy or girl" phrases gender in an unnecessarily binary way. This can make some LGBTQ+ colleagues feel excluded or mischaracterised.

While most recent training in the DEI domain focuses primarily on coaching the witness to Sam’s behaviour on how to be an ally and speak out against such outdated assumptions and potentially harmful language, it doesn’t necessarily tell Sam where to go from there. 

So what are the key components of repair, and how can we work with them in our DEI training scenarios? We’d argue repair in a DEI training scenario like this one can simulate the following components for contextual practice that can translate into your daily life at work: 

Seek clarification

The first step is seeking clarification around the problematic language and why it was inappropriate or hurtful. This involves explaining sensitively why certain terms, idioms or phrases are outdated, offensive or promote biased mindsets. Doing so educationally, not punitively, is important.

This can realistically be built into scenario-based learning where learners are prompted to make decisions at particular conversational turns in a way that is contextualised and real-to-life. 

Here, a learner may be encouraged to find the best ways to respond. In a way that points out, for example: This makes assumptions about someone's gender identity just based on how they look. And phrasing it as 'guy or girl' can come across as exclusive to some.

Repair involves modelling the correct, inclusive language to use

Model correction – without shaming 

Repair involves modelling the correct, inclusive language to use instead. This could mean providing updated terminology, proper pronoun usage or new idioms to consider, stripped of biased implications. Contrasting the problematic language with the accurate, affirming alternative is vital.

In our sample imagined scenario here, this could be succinctly done with something like: the inclusive way to ask would be something like: 'What are Chris's pronouns?' That gives them the chance to share how they want to be referred to."

Account for impact

Much as we argued before, creating effective scenario-based DEI learning means accounting for accountability

Beyond just word choice, repair implicates accountability for impact. The person making the misstep should be guided to explore the ways one can acknowledge and own the unintended impact their language had. Even if it didn't stem from ill intent. 

Taking responsibility for the real impacts of speech is part of the learning. This is transferable across DEI domains and other key areas, such as leadership. 

In the sample scenario explored above, that may include acknowledging that the intent was not poor, but that the reliance on binary phrasing can make marginalised colleagues feel excluded. 

Repair should include a sincere apology for the harm caused

Sincerity in apology

When appropriate, repair should include a sincere apology for the harm caused and appreciation for the learning opportunity. The heart of this is the acknowledgement of what‘s been done, and what that did for the other person. 

The centre of care lies with the effect on the other person. Not on an intention that didn’t work out (or complicated feelings about feeling caught out. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is NOT an apology.) 

This will feel vulnerable for the learner, because it is. Nobody likes getting caught out with something less than ideal and most people don’t intentionally want to cause harm. 

The other person already showed vulnerability by their reaction, by bringing this up. Accountability for Sam’s part in this scenario is what acknowledges the status quo. And how that then helps both parties move through the moment. 

Note that this is about doing the work, as they say. It's not about placing expectations of forgiveness onto the other party. This may or may not be granted, or not immediately (this isn’t a Hollywood film). But well designed scenarios in your training can provide a safe practice space for apologies. Ones that are truthful, to the point and effective for building inclusion. 

Build shared understanding

The ultimate aim is to build a shared understanding between colleagues about why certain language is hurtful. This creates alignment on proper inclusive speech going forward. 

Agreeing on rights/wrongs shouldn't shut down further dialogue, but open up more constructive discussion. 

For instance, a conclusion to a scenario in this type of learning can bring focus back to the ultimate goal that benefits not just those harmed, or those allying with the marginalised – but also the person who made the mistake. 

A scenario that drives towards conclusions that reiterate something like: We want to be an inclusive environment where everyone feels they can bring their full, authentic selves to work. Avoiding language that makes assumptions or boxes people in helps create that culture of belonging for all of our teammates.

Language and our needs evolve, and doing this type of scenario-based training well will necessarily be regional/local/specific to nuance. People involved in learning design will need to double-check with the community they are working with. With local sensibilities and what is common or evolving practice there. And they must be prepared to check in with their content on a regular basis to see if it is still up to date. 

We practise and possibly fail, and we can repair and recover

Consider this part of your leadership journey

If all of this looks and feels a bit messy and fluid with high-stakes emotions kicking all around, well, it is. That’s where things are. 

The good news (and there IS good news): the skills you and your colleagues develop to handle repair are crucial for any leader in times of change. Both for you as a learning and HR professional looking to upskill others in a meaningful way and for you and your audience as the leaders they are or they could become. 

This is flexing where it counts: tuning into sensitive domains that are shifting and have cultural nuance and historical baggage. We practise and possibly fail, and we can repair and recover and co-create something better. 

By helping create that more inclusive place in your programmes, you give opportunities to unlock talent and innovation for your business too. As you make it more resilient in a fluid environment. 

You are not ‘just’ creating that inclusion module that you need to evidence for the sake of compliance. You are building crucial leadership skills, at all levels in the organisation. 

If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the content series on diversity, equity and inclusion training

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Lior Locher

Learning Consultant

Read more from Lior Locher
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