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Techniques for giving difficult DEI / microaggression feedback


I was recently asked a challenging question during a breaking the culture of microaggressions training session – how.


The training focuses on how to respond to microaggressions to break the cycles of occurrences within a professional environment. We use a ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘now what’ technique where:

  • ‘What’ calls out the incident – what went wrong.

  • ‘Why’ refers to why the incident had a negative impact.

  • ‘Now what’ is the actionable step for what should be done moving forward.

But the question was not on the process, it was on the execution.


“How do I tell the person that what they said or did was offensive? What if they are my manager or someone who is a subordinate? It’s not easy to tell someone that what they said was offensive or inappropriate.”


This is a great and challenging question.


And, of course, as with every challenging question the answer is ‘it depends’.


There is no one secret sauce for how to navigate a difficult conversation. Different techniques will work for different people in different situations depending on the communication styles of those involved, comfort level, and current scenario. And, in the spirit of creating inclusive and equitable environments, we must respect and celebrate those differences rather than force everyone to conform to a single method.


However, there are some universal rules that help with any form of feedback, including those difficult DEI and/or microaggression conversations.


Keep the focus on the action not the individual


When providing any feedback, keep the focus on the object of the feedback (the action, content, process, etc.), not on the individual. This avoids the perception of someone being personally attacked while maintaining focus on what can be changed and how to change it.


For example


The phrase xyz is hurtful because….” NOT “You made a mistake by saying…”.


Refrain from commentary on intent


When providing feedback, focus on what happened and what should happen in the future, not in arguing the intent of the action or why it may have occurred. Keep the ‘what’ as logical and factual as possible without commentary to add negative intent.


For example


“The phrase xyz is hurtful because…” NOT “You were discriminating against me by saying xyz…”


Refrain from arguing belief


Similar to avoiding commentary on intent, stick to the logical and factual ‘what’, without arguing any underlying belief. The goal of the feedback is to shift action or behavior, not to change someone’s belief system. This also helps avoid falling into a conversation that may exacerbate rather than resolve the issue or losing focus on the issue (and therefore resolution) all together.


For example


If the issue is an article of clothing with politically charged content that makes people feel uncomfortable, offended, or attacked, focus the feedback on the clothing. Define what is acceptable and not acceptable work attire to ensure an inclusive environment to all political leanings. Avoid conversation about political preferences or the accuracy of the political content.


Embrace emotional reaction


There is a common fallacy that emotional reactions such as crying does not belong in the workplace. That is ridiculous. Emotional reactions are natural, they are human, and there is nothing wrong, unprofessional, or inappropriate about them. It is how we act that matters.


Note: emotional expression such as crying or flushing with frustration is not the same thing as screaming or name calling. One is an uncontrolled response, the other is a controlled action.


Policies and attitudes that classify emotional reactions as unprofessional have two big problems:


1. Humans are emotional.


Phrases like ‘professionals are not emotional’ is like saying ‘we do not condone breathing in this organization’.


2. It is a discriminatory microaggression.


Think of the last time you cried. Did you do it on purpose? Did you flip it on like a switch because that was the reaction you wanted to have in the moment?


Likely – no.


For most of us, genuine emotional reactions are not something we just flip on and off like our phones. We have little to no control over those tears, or laughter, or micro expressions that flash across our faces. We can control what we do and how we act, but like it or not, those actions are done through tears or giggles or with trembling frustration.


Environments that are unwelcoming to emotions are hostile to something beyond our control. And that will create fear and isolation for those of us who are more susceptible to those uncontrollable reactions which impacts some demographics/groups over others.


For example


Women cry more than men. There are various biological, societal, and cultural reasons for this. It does not necessarily mean women are more emotional than men, but it does mean their reaction trigger is more sensitive. In other words, when feeling the same emotional intensity, tears will come more frequently for women.


This difference also applies to cultures with a deeper range of emotional expression and to individuals who are higher on the empathy and emotional scales.


Give benefit of the doubt


Usually, people don’t intend to make mistakes. They are not out to offend or isolate people, they are not purposefully providing subpar work, and they don’t want to mess up in that meeting or event. When providing feedback, especially if it is the first time the topic is discussed, give the individual the benefit of the doubt – assume the issue was an accident and not intentional.


By assuming accident over intent, the approach and language will naturally shift to be less competitive and more supportive and helpful when explaining the what, why, and now what.


Keep it positive and forward leaning


Feedback is only valuable if it’s driving change. Once the understanding of ‘what’ and ‘why’ are established, don’t linger. Focus the majority of the energy on the ‘now what’ – what to do differently moving forward.


Keep the conversation positive and empowering by including all participants in the ‘now what’. By being part of the solution in suggesting, discussing, and selecting next steps, the participants gain ownership in the solution which will drive change.


Keep it current


Don’t let too much time pass between the event and the feedback. There are several important reasons for this:

  • After only days, or, in some cases, only hours, memories fade and facts become fuzzy, if they are recalled at all. That means the ability to create a lasting and emotional connection between the ‘what’ and the ‘now what’ fades with time.

  • The more time that passes, the more chances the problem will occur again and again.

  • The more time that passes, the more time negative feelings can fester and grow until there is too much negative weight to effectively address the issue.

Deliver the feedback in the moment or shortly thereafter while it is most relevant and impactful to all parties involved.


Balance public and private


Balance the needs of the moment with the receptiveness of the feedback. Critical feedback, especially feedback that can be weighted with embarrassment and discomfort, is usually best received without an audience.


For group or public situations, if the occurrence is inappropriate or harmful to an individual (or professional task), correct in the moment. For situations that could have been handled better but did not cause harm, correct in private shortly after.


Maintain respect


Feedback, especially about DEI / microaggression, can be seeped in vulnerability and emotion. With these highly emotional, personal, uncomfortable conversations, anchor them with respect. Respect for yourself and for the other individuals involved.


No matter what happens, or how uncomfortable things get, always maintain respect. It is about the action or words, not the individual. It is about driving change, not blaming or punishing. It’s about listening and understanding and building, not just correcting.