Diversity & inclusion10 min read

Set expectations: Address problematic language

This is an Inclusion Works Workout — an interactive session guide to help teams foster a more inclusive culture. We’re sharing this Workout so you can use it to facilitate and encourage honest discussion as part of your company’s antiracism work.

What we say matters. Sometimes we marginalize people with our words — whether or not we mean to. The impact of exclusionary language is real and can be felt regardless of the speaker’s intention. This is called the intention-impact gap.

On the other hand, sometimes we avoid authentic conversations because we’re scared of saying the wrong thing. This is when we lose out on important opportunities to connect on topics like racism that we should all be talking about right now.

Why we need to talk about this

By making time for honest discussions where teammates can flag the phrases that are hurtful or exclusionary to them, your team can overcome the intention-impact gap. Teammates can suggest acceptable alternatives to build a shared glossary that makes everyone feel respected and accepted.

This guided discussion will:

⚡ Give everyone the opportunity to share words and phrases that feel problematic to them

⚡ Reveal the lived experiences of your colleagues and provide context behind the words that feel exclusionary or hurtful for them, building connection and trust

⚡ Invite everyone to ask questions and explore any ‘gray areas’

⚡ Begin to co-create your team’s shared glossary

⚡ Help your team practice inclusion through the language you all use every day

Let's do this

Here’s what you’ll need:

Participants: 3+  |  Time: 40 mins  |  Difficulty: Easy
Resources: Screen, anything you usually need for remote joiners 

One week in advance

✅ Ask your team to think about and make a note of:

  1. Any phrase or word(s) they find exclusionary or uncomfortable (note that this could be a term directed towards themselves or others). Or any diversity-related phrase or word(s) they are just unsure about and want to discuss as a group.
  2. Additional context to explain to their teammates why they find it problematic
  3. Any examples they are happy to share of that phrase or word used to or around them

Share The New York Times article, Readers Respond: Which Racial Terms Make You Cringe?, as a guideline.

✅ Prepare your example of the above to share if needed

✅ Ask your team to read this guide to talking about diversity and Hive Learning’s D&I glossary.

⚠️ This Workout is not for discussing anything that is obviously offensive and inappropriate for the workplace.

In the case of overt verbal abuse or a breach in your company’s guidelines, speak to relevant individuals in private and escalate to HR if needed.  

In countries like the UK and the U.S., employers are legally required to investigate any harassment they hear about.

One day in advance 

✅ Remind everyone to have their speaking points ready for the session

On the day

  1. Get started by explaining the purpose of the session, which is to explore language that feels uncomfortable, problematic or exclusionary to individuals in our team. (5 mins)
    ⚠️ Remind everyone that no one should be treated as a representative who is speaking on behalf of a group they belong to, and that all views are individual to that person.
  1. Go round-robin and ask everyone in the group to share their word or phrase(s). If it helps to get the discussion going, start by sharing your example and explain why you find it problematic. Allow everyone to talk about their chosen word or phrase(s) without interruption. Thank each person for sharing their thoughts and ask them what alternative they would prefer others to use. (10 mins)
  1. Invite the group to ask questions or share any phrases, words or contexts they’re unsure about. They may have been told a word is problematic but do not understand why. Or they might be curious about how the ‘rules’ apply in different situations.

    Example: disproportionately calling people of color “articulate”. On the surface, it’s an ordinary adjective that can be used to describe anyone. The reason it can be problematic is when it’s used to describe people of color the implied assumption is that a person of color couldn’t be articulate, which surprises the listener so much that they feel the need to comment on this apparent anomaly.

    Reiterate to the group that good intentions don’t remove responsibility or undo harm. 

    Ask everyone, “Having heard everyone’s points, whether you personally disagree or agree with each of the points, how do you feel about prioritizing the impact on the victim over the impact of the speaker?” (5 mins)
  1. Invite the group to share how they feel after talking and listening to each other’s viewpoints. Draw out the importance of this session by reflecting on learnings and feelings about sharing thoughts with the team. (5 mins)

    Ask questions like:

    “Has anyone heard any words or phrases today that they didn’t realize was problematic before?”

    “Before today, had anyone heard any of the words or phrases spoken about today being used and not said anything to the speaker? Does this session change how you feel about past events?”

    “How does it feel to share what you find problematic as part of this group? Is it easier or harder compared to having to confront someone who has just used the word or phrase?”

    “Has anyone changed their mind about using certain words or phrases after hearing their teammate talk about the personal impact it has on them?”
  1. Decide together what individuals can do if they get it wrong. The aim is to agree on how colleagues can let each other know when they’ve said something problematic and how we can receive that feedback. (5 mins)

    Ask the group, “if someone was to use that phrase about you or in front of you and they were told that it made you uncomfortable, how would you hope they would react?”.

    You can prompt discussion with more questions, like: 

    “How important is it for the speaker to take responsibility for the impact of what they say? What might deflecting the issue or rejecting responsibility look like?”

    “How can we as a team effectively call out or call in others who use language we’ve discussed today?”
  1. Discuss common reactions and how to deal with them. Ask if anyone has ever been met with resistance when pointing out someone else’s use of problematic language. 

    You can lead with examples like these: 

    “That’s not what I meant.”
    “But I’m not sexist/racist/homophobic/ableist/classist.”
    “Come on, it was just a joke.”
    “I think you’re overreacting/being too sensitive.”
    “Why do you have to make everything about race/gender?”
    “Fine. I just won’t say anything then.”

    It’s natural to feel defensive when someone calls us out. We might feel upset, frustrated or attacked — especially if we didn’t expect to be challenged in what we thought was a normal conversation. 

    Even if we feel guilty, we might want to reject the discomfort that comes with that guilt. 

    So how do we respond when we hear anything like the above?

    Empathize with them. Ask an open-ended to question to understand the reasoning behind what the person said. Try asking, “what did you mean by that?” or “why did you use that word?”. 

    Share your experiences. Let the other person know that this is a judgment-free space by telling them about similar situations you’ve been in. 

    For example, “I’ve forgotten that it’s not okay to say X a few times and had to remind myself” or “I didn’t know it wasn’t okay either until someone told me/I read an article on it/it came up in a show I was watching.” 

    If you feel a knee-jerk emotional reaction to someone saying something problematic, or being called out for is, take time out to process. Say, “I need some time to think about this before I can say anymore on the subject. Can we come back to this later this week/next week?”. 

    ❌ Don’t shame or write people off as bad. We often feel justified in chastising others but people rarely learn from being shamed.
  1. Wrap up. Set the expectation that each person will respect the experiences and beliefs shared with them today by making an effort to use acceptable alternatives laid out by others. Ask everyone to commit the agreed way of bringing up someone’s problematic language. 

    If someone says something problematic directed to you, bring it up (preferably in private) by saying “I felt uncomfortable when you used the word X earlier” or “That phrase is exclusionary to… It would be better to say X instead, which is a more inclusive term.”

    If you overhear someone using a word or phrase directed to someone else that you think could have been hurtful, bring it up (preferably in private) as above. If possible, add something like, “I used to think that term was OK too, but then I learned X, and now I try to avoid it.” That humility will help the other person feel better about what you’re saying and really hear you, rather than getting defensive.

    If someone tells you that you said something exclusionary, listen to what they have to say and accept responsibility for your actions. Ask your colleague for clarification if needed, and agree on alternative language to use going forward. Don’t deflect responsibility with phrases like, “I was just joking”.

    Let everyone know that the discussion is ongoing and that thoughts and questions after the session are welcome. (5 mins)
Post-Workout steps

Afterwards 

✅ Follow up with an email to thank your team and recap on the session and the main objective, which was to practice inclusion by listening to individual’s speak about terms that are problematic for them and commit to avoiding those phrases.

✅ If your teammates are comfortable to, create a shared document where each person can contribute words or phrases they find problematic and accepted alternatives.

✅ Challenge your teammates to commit to the following action in the next month:

💡 If you don’t know, ask. Start by admitting that you don’t know and ask your question with curiosity and respect. For example, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what the right thing to say is. How would you like to be referred to?”

💡 Research a problematic word or phrase they’re unsure about. If they don’t understand why it’s something that you shouldn’t say, encourage them to read articles, blogs and social media posts written by people who feel strongly about it.

In your next round of 1:1s, ask for each person’s thoughts on the session. Did they learn anything new? Has the session made them think differently about words or phrases they might have used before without thinking? Has the session made them change their behavior in any way? What feedback do they have for you on how you ran the session?

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