Overcoming Unconscious Bias and Getting to Yes

One of the biggest challenges we face when working with diversity is the capacity to engage in dialogue with people we disagree with, without demonising the other.  As demonstrated so clearly by the impasse in the Australian parliament this week regarding the asylum seeker issue, our capacity to negotiate with, and reach agreement with people we may not agree with can be a matter of life and death.

As we learn more about neurology and perception, we know all of us are unconsciously biased in some way towards others who are ‘different’ to us.  Race, gender, sexual preference, disAbility, hair colour, political party – you name it, there is a bias towards it.  Test the theory by taking the Implicit Association Test – www.iat.org . There is always a risk of patronizing lecturing and ‘you should’ in conversations with ‘the other’.  Recent brain research also shows us that we look for reinforcement of our world view and discount evidence to the contrary.  Unfortunately, we are far less rational than we think.

What works to minimise bias, and assist in overcoming difference

  1. The capacity to empathise and relate on a human level, despite disagreement.  Jonothan Haidt in his new book ‘The Righteous Mind’ describes how politicians whose children are at the same school and are required to interact on a personal level are able to better distinguish between the person and their job.  Once the capacity to empathise on a one to one level is removed, politics gets nastier and less functional.
  2. The capacity to resist labeling, demonizing and judging.  To simply be able to say “I disagree with you on this” and accept that it is not necessary to demolish the other person’s credibility or attack their world-view and values is critical.  Attacking the world-view or values (regardless of the evidence base or logic) of the other person serves to reinforce their position.  When under threat, human beings reinforce their position, bunker down, look for allies and may attack in response.
  3. Taking an Appreciative Inquiry approach.  A willingness to put aside partisan perspectives and think rigorously about options often works best when we start with what we agree upon and what could be done. To focus on what doesn’t work, or what can’t be done, or critiquing other options from the beginning shuts down productive problem solving capacity.
  4. Engaging in values based negotiation – In other words, a recognition that if we collaborate together, we can make the pie bigger for all of us, rather than fighting over our half of the pie now.  Either/or win/lose negotiations are destined to be limited in results for all parties.  Values based negotiation takes a long term approach and looks for mutual benefit.
  5. Testing the validity of our approach through reversal.   Would it be appropriate if we were to be recipients of the approach we are recommending others take?  Really?  Think about their political and broader stakeholders.

Of course, for any of these strategies to be implemented or succeed, there must be: the genuine intention to address whatever issue is at hand, the self-esteem to acknowledge that we are not 100% right 100% of the time, and the interest in achieving a mutually beneficial outcome.

About the Author:

Tamerlaine Beasley is an expert who enables effective collaboration and communication in diverse and global workplaces.She is a member of the Board of the Australia-ASEAN Council for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and founder and Managing Director of Beasley Intercultural, Australia’s premier cross-cultural training and consultancy company.Tamerlaine’s keynote presentations, advisory services and training programs are described by clients as ‘transformational’ and ‘game changing’. Examples of her work include: coaching and advising business leaders in Australia and Asia; working with global teams to optimise performance; developing a framework for training and capability building through international partnerships for APEC; building local staff capacity at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; leading the development of diversity and inclusion programs for the Australian Public Service Commission and the Department of Defence.