A DEI mindset is about more than hiring. It requires seeing the world through others’ eyes.
Savannah is autistic and non-verbal. Most people assume that because she is non-verbal, she has nothing to say. That is completely false.
Two years ago, with guidance from a coach, Savannah began to communicate with the help of technology. Once this door was opened, we discovered that she has complex thoughts and opinions about everything — current events, world affairs, our family.
Despite this communication breakthrough, there are challenges. Every day, Savannah attends various programs and works with staff. They make assumptions that Savannah has nothing on her mind. It’s understandable – she rarely makes eye contact with anyone. She often speaks what sounds like gibberish and rarely takes part in a conversation. Some of them report that she has “behavior issues,” instead of examining why there might be resistance. Yet in one of her recent communication sessions, Savannah expressed how she would like people to interact with her. “I want to surround myself with people who believe in me,” she said.
Fortunately, there is the staff who believe in Savannah. They understand that she does have a lot to say, even if she says it in an unexpected way. They show her respect and make the effort to gain her trust. In essence, they embrace a DEI mindset.
An intentional and constant state of openness and curiosity
Leaders today are asked to foster inclusive environments in which people of diverse backgrounds and identities can succeed. A DEI mindset is essential to make this happen. According to organizational psychologist and executive coach Dr. Colleen Bastian, this mindset requires a commitment to “an intentional and constant state of openness and curiosity.”
When we are faced with something unfamiliar or different — a different way of communicating or working, or a cultural practice that is different from our own — it can cause discomfort. It’s far easier and more comfortable to surround ourselves with what we already know. But, to leverage the strengths that come with diversity, we must embrace the discomfort. According to Dr. Bastian, curiosity and openness “enables individuals to work through discomfort about others’ life experiences, cultures, identities, and background.”
The staff who don’t succeed with Savannah aren’t open to the differences in how she communicates, because doing so often brings discomfort. But, embracing curiosity and working through the discomfort can result in deeper understanding and trust.
As leaders, it’s crucial to practice that constant state of openness and curiosity. Embrace a learner’s mindset, and interpret discomfort as a sign of growth. You’ll gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the people you work with, and gain their respect.
The profound joy of being truly seen and valued
Savannah expressed that she wanted to be with people who “believed” in her. She wants to be around people who make her feel accepted, respected, and appreciated for who she is. Executive and business coach Dr. Lisa Walker describes this as “the profound joy of being truly seen and valued.”
We can’t truly see someone if we are seeing them through our own assumptions. Even as her mother, I often made assumptions about Savannah based on how I thought or feel. This kept me from truly understanding her and impacted how I behaved toward her.
Dr. Walker says a DEI mindset requires a “willingness to listen deeply with judgment suspended,” and that we “open the space for empathy.” Once I started looking at the world through Savannah’s eyes — not just mine — I better understood her challenges.
When we are moving fast, it’s easy to fall back on assumptions. When confronted with behavior or actions you don’t understand, slow down and ask yourself, what assumptions could I be making? Are these assumptions based on how I experience the world, or how they do? How can I assume positive intent and presume competence? How can I practice empathy?
I experienced a revelation when I discovered that my daughter, despite her communication challenges, simply wants what everyone else wants – she wants people to believe in her. It’s the basis of what it truly means to have a DEI mindset.
This article was originally posted on Inc.com