Building a safe, inclusive work environment is often easier said then done. And for some, finding a place to start can feel daunting, confusing, or simply uncharted (i.e. “how am I supposed to do this?”). Luckily, you aren’t alone, and with others on the same journey we all benefit from shared wisdoms and techniques we can try.
Here’s one of my favorites – the “ask me anything” conversation.
What is “ask me anything”?
For those who are fans of Reddit, this concept may sound familiar. It is as it sounds, a conversation where one or more people sharing a similar knowledge or experience of interest invites people to “ask me anything”.
People then submit all those questions that have been bothering them, piqued their curiosity, never gotten a straight answer on, or never had the opportunity to ask before. It’s a fun way to dive into a topic from all angles through the diversity of participants and participant questions with access to the expert in knowledge or experience.
Why “ask me anything?” for inclusion?
So, why use this technique for an inclusion program?
When it comes to topics about each other, we are often hesitant to ask. It’s not that we already know the answer, or that we don’t think the answer is important, we are simply uncomfortable or have never had a proper opportunity to ask.
Consider if you ever had any of these types of questions, but never had anyone to ask:
“Should I use Black or African American?”
“For those in a wheelchair, should I help navigate the chair in tight spots, or is that considered inappropriate or offensive?”
“Am I allowed to hold the door open for women now, or is that considered sexist?”
“Which holidays are legitimate for asking for the day off, and which of my employees are trying to take advantage of our holiday policy?”
“I’m having a lot of trouble communicating with my Autistic colleague. Am I doing something wrong?”
“Is it weird to suggest an ethnic food for lunch to someone who is of that ethnicity and I’m not?”
“If someone tells me they are queer, does that mean they are gay or is that something else?”
Don’t feel uncomfortable if the answer is yes. These are just a few common questions that come up during various DEIB trainings. The truth is, there is no way for us to know everything about everyone, so it is natural to have questions.
The challenge comes in getting answers. We can google and find all sorts of different things, but how accurate are they, how human, and how current?
When we have questions where we don’t know how to get answers, one of two things commonly happen.
We do everything we can to avoid situations where our lack of knowledge could get us in trouble or we inadvertently get something wrong and make someone uncomfortable. In other words, we avoid it. And that could lead to avoiding people.
We inadvertently say or do something that makes people feel uncomfortable or isolated because we don’t know what we should do, which can sometimes lead to 'microaggressions'.
Either way, this is not conducive to a healthy, inclusive environment.
By using a technique like “ask me anything”, we give an opportunity for people to get their questions answered in a safe, professional, productive way – as long as it is run correctly.
How to run an “ask me anything?” for inclusion?
Unlike the versions of this technique designed for entertainment or investigative journalism, the goal of this exercise is not to discover deep secrets or catch people in lies or get a good laugh. For our version, the goal is to increase inclusion and comfort by providing a platform of safe discovery within professional environments. This means you don’t want uncomfortable surprises or combative or accusatory behaviors. To achieve this, the conversation must be facilitated and managed.
Here are a few guidelines to optimize the technique to build inclusion:
Introduce and advertise the conversation.
Give participants a clear understanding of the conversation before they join (live or virtual). This includes a clear purpose statement and examples, so they know what to expect. Advertise frequently and in multiple formats leading up to the event to maximize exposure. Emails, chat announcements, social media, postings in break rooms, and whatever else are common consumption channels.
Do not allow for live questions – at least, not at first.
For those that are new to open conversations and inclusion building, start with pre-submitted questions. This avoids surprises, confusing or poorly worded questions, and questions that are inadvertently (or intentionally) competitive or hurtful. To do this, set up a way for participants to submit their questions before the session. Provide the question submission information in the advertisements.
Provide anonymous question submission.
The questions that often need to be answered the most are the ones that are rarely or never asked because people are uncomfortable asking. To ensure the important questions are addressed, provide a way for people to anonymously submit their questions for the session.
Curate and seed.
Just because someone submits a question doesn’t mean it has to be answered in a public form, or answered in the wording for which it was submitted. Before asking questions, curate what will be asked. Group questions together that are similar and reword to encompass as much as possible. Remove ones that are inappropriate or combative or, if possible, reword. And, if there aren’t enough questions (which is common in newer programs), seed it with questions that should be answered. Once participants see value in the conversation, participation will grow.
When possible, use a panel of respondents.
One person providing responses can be hugely insightful. However, a panel of respondents allows for diversity and depth in the points of view. This is particularly helpful with demographic-based or human-attribute conversations because it shows that there isn’t just one point of view or one voice to represent a population.
Consider, would you want to be the sole voice of all who share one of your demographics? For that matter, do you share all the same answers as everyone else who shares one of your demographics?
Yeah… neither does anyone else.
Bringing it all together - “ask me anything” to cultivate safe, inclusive cultures
When done well, the “ask me anything” technique is fun, entertaining, enlightening, and elevates the human of the conversation. Don’t be surprised that, once you start, these become a heavily requested program as so many seek to have those questions they’ve never had the opportunity to ask, finally get answered.