Summary of We Can’t Talk About That at Work!

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We Can’t Talk About That at Work! book summary




  • Controversial
  • Applicable
  • For Beginners


In a time of increased polarization, managers might worry about the impact of disruptive political conversations at work. Diversity consultant Mary-Frances Winters says that employers should encourage, not discourage, these interactions. Winters believes that “bold, inclusive conversations” can have a positive impact on the workplace environment and employee engagement. To help things turn out that way, she provides guidance, with examples, on how to conduct such discussions. She offers a handy guide to potentially abrasive comments and phrases that various groups might find offensive. getAbstract recommends her advice on quelling divisiveness in the workplace to supervisors, HR professionals and any employees interested in communicating more effectively with their co-workers.  


  • Strive to create a workplace with an “inclusive culture” to foster higher employee engagement.
  • “Bold, inclusive conversations” can help improve employee engagement.
  • Take the “Platinum Rule” to heart: “Do unto others as they’d like done unto them.”
  • Prepare for bold conversations by following the “4Es”: “exposure, experience, education and empathy.”
  • Inclusive conversations can occur only in an atmosphere of trust.
  • Ask yourself the reporter's five basic questions: “who, what, when, where and why.”  
  • In your first bold conversation, be content with simply listening.
  • Plan to hear out one another’s personal stories to achieve a level of shared meaning.
  • Be aware of terms and phrases that can be offensive to certain identity groups.
  • Resolve to “live inclusively.” 


Strive to create a workplace with an “inclusive culture” to foster higher employee engagement.

Employers have traditionally discouraged conversations about sensitive topics in the workplace. However, employees will discuss these subjects anyway and are already discussing them, so managers should harness those conversations and encourage employees to hold them in positive, constructive ways.  

“When we engage with each other, we have the opportunity to learn more about each other’s similarities and differences, build better relationships, and improve trust.”

Shootings by police and attacks against police, border security conflicts, gay and transgender rights, terrorist attacks and political polarization galvanize people. Difficult topics tend to inspire “tribal” responses and people naturally bring their reactions and opinions to work. When they can express these views without penalty in an atmosphere of respect and trust, they perform better. When a company says nothing about tough topics like, for example, prejudice against particular groups or sexual harassment, the silence communicates indifference. When a leader or an organization opens a dialogue, the result can be “cathartic.”  

“Bold, inclusive conversations” can help improve employee engagement.

Before you encourage bold, inclusive conversations in your workplace, prepare yourself. First, “explore your own cultural identity,” so you understand and accept how you perceive and react to the world around you.

“Cultural humility is the ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the other person.”

Step outside yourself and view your attitudes objectively, especially if you belong to a “dominant group” – generally, Caucasian, male and straight. The concept of “intersectionality” recognizes that people can identify with several different groups at once. Your hometown, your childhood life lessons, your age and ethnic group, your job, and your political opinions all contribute to your cultural identity.

Take the “Platinum Rule” to heart: “Do unto others as they’d like done unto them.”

For inclusive conversations follow the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they’d like done unto them.” To determine what people want, try to develop some understanding of their orientation. Explore what you have in common with others and recognize their differences without succumbing to “stereotype threats” – that is, being afraid that they will form an opinion about you according to your cultural group, instead of on the basis of who you are as an individual.

“Most major organizations today have a goal to create an inclusive culture because they realize that inclusion drives engagement.”

People experience cultural differences on a scale called the “Intercultural Development Continuum.” Most folks land at the midpoint, defined as “minimization.” They “go along to get along.” Minimizing differences doesn’t contribute to bold conversations, which require recognizing that:

  • Everyone has “unconscious bias” and makes fast appraisals of other people and about various circumstances.
  • Certain social groups enjoy “power and privilege” that other groups don’t. Acknowledge this as true without casting blame.
  • You may not be ready to hold a bold conversation. Don’t try to conduct a possibly contentious discussion without proper preparation.

Prepare for bold conversations by following the “4Es”: “exposure, experience, education and empathy.”

To prepare for a bold conversation, teach yourself about how others feel – “beyond your worldview.” To aid in that process, embrace “the 4Es”:

  1. “Exposure” – Consider the people with whom you regularly interact.
  2. “Experience” – Understand the need to create meaningful relationships with those who are different.
  3. “Education” – Tap into your firm’s organizational development curriculum.
  4. “Empathy” – Strive to understand others, since that will contribute to your emotional intelligence.

Explore how different cultures communicate. Look for four major styles, “discussion, engagement, accommodation and dynamic.”

“A stereotype threat…is the expectation or the fear that one will be judged based on a negative stereotype about one’s social identity group, rather than on actual performance and potential.”

For example, people of northern European descent may favor the discussion approach, which is less emotional, while those from Middle Eastern cultures may employ the dynamic style, which is more animated.

Inclusive conversations can occur only in an atmosphere of trust.

Your goal is to develop shared trust with other people. Your strategies could include communicating what you know “broadly,” trying to create social ties with your co-workers, being willing to appear vulnerable, and helping your employees learn and grow as “whole people.”

Creating an atmosphere of trust takes time, but you can destroy trust in a minute. What is factually true in your eyes may not appear to be true to another person; respect the difference in various people’s viewpoints.

“Recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Determine if your firm is ready to hold bold conversations. Does your company prioritize diversity and inclusion? Does it work to attract and retain employees from different cultures? Does the culture include “risk taking” or “risk aversion”? Do your leaders inspire trust?

Ask yourself the reporter's five basic questions: “who, what, when, where and why.”  

Before you attempt bold, inclusive conversations, ask yourself the classic journalistic queries:

  • “Why are we pursuing a dialogue about X?” – Are certain people requesting a discussion of a potentially contentious issue? Is this standard operating procedure for your firm, or an exception?
  • “Who will be involved?” – Will the discussion involve two people or a group? Will it be formal or informal? Is anyone not to be included and if so, why not? Will the format be a “town hall” or involve only an “affinity group”? Will a facilitator moderate the dialogue?
  • “What is the expected outcome?” – What are your short- and long-term goals?
  • “How” will you do it? – Will the conversation be held “in person,” as a “virtual” meeting, or using some combination of in-person and electronic discussions?
  • “Where” will the conversations occur? – Make sure the room you select is easy to find, big enough for everyone and comfortable enough to facilitate talking together easily.
  • “When” will dialogues happen? – Conversations that you plan will go more smoothly than spur-of-the-moment gatherings.

In your first bold conversation, be content with simply listening.

Jake, a white manager, supervises Rodney, an African-American who wants their employer to speak out about the issue of police shootings of black men. Jake agrees to schedule time to talk about this topic with Rodney one on one, but before that conversation, he must reflect on his own opinions about this issue, determine what level of trust he and Rodney share, and identify his own “conflict resolution style.” Rodney must also consider the same questions.

To conduct the initial conversation, Jake should listen without expressing his feelings. He needs to assure Rodney that their talk is just between the two of them and that he’ll let Rodney know if he feels it’s necessary to involve higher-ups. He should ask Rodney how this issue affects his job performance. Rodney’s explanation should be “balanced” between his feelings and the facts of the shooting incidents that concern him, perhaps due to his work situation. The two men should not expect their first discussion to solve anything immediately.

“One’s perception of a situation is one’s truth. Respecting another’s truth is important.”

The second time Jake and Rodney sit down to talk, they can try to attain “shared meaning” by identifying what feelings they have in common. To build trust, they should help educate one another. The “DNA model” for a discussion – “describe, navigate” and “adapt” – can help. They can acknowledge that feelings about police are polarized. Rodney can describe possible reasons behind the police killings of African-American men and help Jake evaluate them. They can agree that everyone has the right to feel free from harassment by authorities; that black people (who are wary of “racial profiling”) can have quite different encounters with police than white people (who are “more likely” to see police officers as their friends); and that this can cause stress that could have a negative impact on a black person’s work. Jake and Rodney should conclude this discussion by agreeing to “reflect and learn more.” They should resolve to build such talks into their regular work communications.

Keeping Up the Conversation

Jake and Rodney need to acknowledge to one another that many Americans have conflicting opinions about the way police treat black people. Jake might have to concede to Rodney that he’d never considered that the nation’s system of justice might sometimes be unfair to citizens of color. If Rodney neutrally repeats this concession back to Jake instead of becoming indignant about it, he and Jake can have a meaningful talk about the different ways they interpret “fairness.”

“Before progress can be made…polarization must be revealed. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, and admit that polarization exists.”

Jake and Rodney should resolve to share their life stories at their next meeting. This strategy will move their talks from listening to telling and will encourage “openness and transparency.” It’ll enable bold, inclusive conversations, but it won’t bring them to an “end point.” By simply connecting, striving for “reciprocal empathy” and celebrating their incremental progress, they can improve their “productivity, engagement and innovation” at work.

Your “Inclusive Habits”

To discourage polarization at work, try to show these attitudes:   

  • “Acknowledging” – Admit you’re not an expert. You can learn what you don’t know.
  • “Legitimizing” – Other people’s opinions matter as much as your own.
  • “Pausing” – Don’t rush in; take a moment to think before you speak.
  • “Accepting” – Don’t just tolerate your co-workers’ views. Be ready to give them serious thought or accept them.
  • “Questioning” – Always be inquisitive. Ask your co-workers about their experiences.
  • “Empathizing” – Walk around in someone else’s shoes.

Avoid Using “Triggers” When You Speak

Be aware of triggers – things you might say that could seem “offensive, derogatory or insensitive” to those who are different from you.

“Many diversity programs advocate for tolerance. Work to move from tolerance to acceptance.”

Don’t try to be politically correct. Consider these comments and why they might alienate certain groups:  

  • To African-Americans – “You are so articulate,” “I have several black friends,” or “We are looking to hire more minorities, as long as they are qualified.”
  • To Native Americans – “Low man on the totem pole” or “Indian giver.”
  • To Asian-Americans – “You speak good English” or “You don’t act very Asian.” (Remember that “oriental” is an archaic word and potentially offensive.)
  • To women – “Work-life balance is a woman’s issue” or “Women are not as good in math or technical roles.”
  • To Hispanics – “Do you speak Spanish, or do you speak English?”
  • To gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people – “Your lifestyle is your business” and “What did you look like before?”
  • To people with disabilities – “Were you born that way?” and “I don’t think of you as a person with a disability.”
  • To white people – “You could never understand my issues,” “You are not diverse” and “All white people are privileged.”

“Live Inclusively”

Refrain from discussing religion at work though you may encourage “faith-based employee resource groups” to facilitate education about different beliefs. Don’t allow coercion or proselytizing around religious matters. For all identity groups, avoid saying things like “I think you are being overly sensitive,” “That’s nothing to worry about” or “I know how you feel.”

“There is usually more than one right answer, which is why this work is hard.”

Learning how to have bold, inclusive conversations takes time. Pledge to live inclusively by resolving to explore your own culture, ask others about what you don’t know or understand, sound off on others’ behalf, remain inquisitive and respectful, and always try to improve.

About the Author

Consultant and strategist Mary-Frances Winters, is founder and president of The Winters Group and has advised organizations globally on diversity and inclusion for more than 30 years.

This document is restricted to personal use only.

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