The act of disrupting bias comes in many forms. Most often, we tend to think of the vocal ones—speaking out in a meeting or verbally challenging a stereotype. The articles in this series explore the many and various ways we can all participate in disrupting bias, with and without words. Depending on your environment, ability, colleagues, and the particulars of each situation, you can find resources and make informed decisions on how to respond to bias in ways that are safe, effective, and beneficial.
Last week, I shared some personal experiences with the disruption of refusal. I wrote about how sometimes refusing to engage can be an intentional way to disrupt bias. And today, I want to continue reshaping how we think about disruption—not always as a direct confrontation, or necessarily an escalation. Sometimes, disruption comes in the deceptively simple form of listening.
What You’re Listening For
In short, the bias.
In this context, bias is an inclination in favor of or against you. It can be reflected as a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment or prejudice. Ultimately, bias leads to disenfranchisement. Here’s the thing, because we don’t always know why we’re being disenfranchised, we don’t know what about our difference is causing discomfort and leading to bias. And if we don’t know the root of the bias, we can’t strategize a response.
It’s both surprising and not that most of the time, we’re only guessing at the reasons for our marginalization. It’s rarely safe for women and people of color to ask about bias directly. This kind of clarity isn’t a luxury we often have.
And so, we default to assuming that we can overcome the bias by working harder, proving ourselves by being smarter, better, faster. Working harder becomes a coping mechanism. It doesn’t address the bias. And so the idea of listening becomes especially important to break out of our own assumptions and disrupt our damaging beliefs about mastery.
Yes, bias can be due to your race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or another kind of difference. It could also be due to any number of other attributes that are about how you show up but not your inherent identity. For example, your work ethic, your priorities, or any of the ways your work doesn’t fit into white supremacist culture could engender bias.
The point is, you won’t know where the bias is coming from and how to effectively address it unless you ask, and then listen.
How to Listen
Real listening, deep listening, is an act of intention and attention, requiring far more than just letting someone talk. It involves eye contact, mirroring, emotional intelligence, and eventually joining in the conversation productively.
While the purpose of deep listening is ascertaining what the other party is thinking, how they are feeling, what motivates them, and where their bias may be rooted, it will actually get you much more than just information.
When you start to interact with someone personally and up close, things inevitably change.
Listening is a form of disruption that brings things into perspective: the bias you’re experiencing in particular. What’s holding you back at this moment isn’t necessarily the same thing holding back another woman or woman of color. It’s a particular individual (maybe) or an environment that holds a perspective that results in bias or prejudice.
Racism works along the same lines, erasing your individuality and replacing you with a stereotype. Sometimes, the only way to bring everyone back to the reality that we are individuals dealing with other individuals is to listen.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate. Years ago, when I was working in law firm administration, I was stranded in New York on 9/11. There was already friction among the senior team. I felt that some of the friction was due to race and age—my race and my youth. In the aftermath of 9/11, I found myself working intensely alongside someone who I’d had a less than friendly relationship.
During the course of those two days after 9/11, we witnessed each other’s’ talents, abilities, work ethics, and strengths. We saw each other’s humanness up close. In these intense and close conditions, she and I became incredibly good friends despite our apparent differences.
In reality, bias and discrimination only work in the abstract. If someone isn’t willing to see you, you have to escalate your means of disruption.
Get Clear on What You Want
Disruption isn’t an end, it’s a means to connect. The connection that enables you to get something you want. Disrupt with a goal in sight. It could be to have more agency, get a new position, promotion, transfer, project lead, salary increase, or any number of things. But it should be clear, tangible, and attainable. It is a goal that you can communicate to someone that can now see your humanity and individuality.
Then, consider your options. Your next move in disrupting bias might be collaborating with someone, initiating another conversation, seeking out a supervisor, building a coalition, filing a complaint with HR, or some other act of collaboration or escalation. The point here is that you will be making a fully informed, strategic choice that aligns other people with your goals and expectations.
It’s All about Clarity
Your path all depends on clarity at each step. You need to listen and get clear about what is happening to you, know whether you’re in a safe enough environment to disrupt, and decide what you want in the end and evaluate if it will be worth your time and efforts.
When you have this clarity, you can build a strategy into, through, and beyond bias disruption. You can create a plan that centers your humanity and leads to collaboration, problem-solving, and your agency.