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  • Writer's pictureAhmmad Brown

Dialogue — Not Debate — Can Help DEI Efforts During Times Of Crisis

Updated: May 29

Over the past weeks, the violence in the Middle East and the escalating crisis in Gaza has prompted a reckoning within the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space. DEI practitioners are grappling with whether and how to publicly speak about the crisis and how to support their teams in one of the most tense and fraught cultural moments in decades. These challenges reveal generally unstated assumptions about what DEI work is and how it should be practiced. 

They also reveal a painful truth: our collective ability to engage in constructive disagreement and dialogue is woefully inadequate for this moment and the current times. 

The DEI space operates in a multi-paradigmatic fashion. Practices that center cross-cultural management techniques, for example, will yield vastly different framing questions, analyses, and solutions than a DEI paradigm rooted in a post-colonial liberatory framework, or the primacy of anti-Black racism, or the business case for diversity.

As a DEI instructor and practitioner, I ground my work in the movement ecology framework, which suggests that a social movement can occur in three ways: 1) fostering personal transformation, 2) developing alternative institutions, and 3) changing dominant institutions.

I primarily focus on the latter through teaching that is grounded in two premises: 1) organizations are systems in which people and structures are interconnected and dynamically related, and 2) the successful execution of DEI work depends on both “the science” of identifying power and influence centers in organizations, and “the art” of engaging interpersonally with stakeholders to move from on-paper strategy to actual change.

This is the work that I believe to be foundational for DEI change in dominant institutions. This is my personal theory of change.

Effectively practicing the art of working with stakeholders to create change demands different communication styles and tactics. I teach the distinction between debate, discussion, and dialogue.1 Debate is about winning—showing the other side that you are right. Discussion can take on similar characteristics as debate, but rather than winning, discussion orients toward achieving agreement or a solution, minimizing conflict. 

Then there is dialogue. Dialogue centers empathy, curiosity, humility, and engagement, and does not mandate a specific goal beyond increased understanding. Dialogue cannot be undertaken in earnest or at all if one party does not share. It also mandates a willingness for participants to listen. Listening—true listening—by its nature creates the conditions for participants to potentially have their minds changed, even if only incrementally. 

What is unfolding in Israel and Gaza has put the public in the United States into a debate mindset, more so than other conflicts abroad. Debate is an important form of engagement and a required skill of leaders. But when debate is used as a reactive form of communication, it too often relies on preconceived mental models that close opportunities to engage others with differing perspectives and experiences.

In a word, an effect of collective orientation toward debate can be silence. This is why DEI work now, perhaps more than ever, needs dialogue.

This need comes at a time in American society in which acknowledging and naming complexity is often taken as a conversation stopper rather than a conversation starter. In which there are social pressures to lead with opinions and debate tactics, despite so many Americans being un- or under-educated on the history of the affected region and its peoples. In which these pressures to debate come in a context in which it can be dangerous—for some more than others—to name a descriptive fact: to the extent that those of us in the United States are educated on the affected region, it is usually through a Western lens.

My decision to write and publish this piece engendered significant feedback-seeking and consideration of potential risks. For me, these risks are outweighed by my desire to speak about and engage DEI work authentically—the same ask that I make of my students and clients. 

I have heard the damning phrase "the silence is deafening" as a call for people to take a stance—a side—in the crisis. But for me and many of my colleagues in dominant institutions, the silence is not about an unwillingness to take a stance, but rather a reticence among leaders in these organizations to acknowledge with sincerity and authenticity the mounting tragedies in this crisis—including those in the United States in the context of harassment and violence against Arabs, Jews, Muslims, or people perceived to have these identities—and their effect on team members. 

This silence speaks volumes about where we are with DEI and our collective commitments to equity and inclusion, and by extension, employee belonging and well-being.

And herein lies one of the many challenges for DEI work at this moment. Developing organizational cultures that embrace dialogic engagement does not happen overnight. Trying to do so can inflict more harm than repair. But it is also untenable to not name the open secret many of us are not well, and that many people are experiencing the current moment not as a single conflict, but as horrific, interconnected, and cascading violence that overwhelms our ability to process these events through any one analytic frame.

DEI practitioners must decide individually and collectively what the space will be. I view my role as an educator to inform my students of the various approaches to DEI, their histories, and the potential consequences of integrating these frames into their practice. It is up to my students to engage critically and figure out what their approach to the work will be.

Regardless of the paradigmatic lens from which your DEI practice draws, the success of DEI work depends on our collective ability—as practitioners, leaders, and members of organizations—to co-create and co-steward spaces where naming tragedies and grief does not mark us with immutable allegiances to one side or another, and where we do not treat compassion as a scarce resource. 

We may not always have the right words, but our strength and resilience comes from the ability to hear each other with compassion, humility, and empathy. If such dialogue is not possible in our organizations—where many Americans spend the majority of their waking hours—then there is little hope that it is possible in society at large.

This article originally appeared in Forbes on the posting date.

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