Navigating Difficult DEI Conversations: 7 Tips

June 15, 2023
two people sitting across from each other with laptops, one with short dark hair and one with blonde shoulder-length hair

While the vast majority of people I’ve met as a DEI consultant are receptive to my messages, I am well aware that naysayers exist. There are those who resist DEI efforts for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t understand the point (“Isn’t this workplace already fair and welcoming to all?!”). Maybe they feel threatened, believing that people from other backgrounds will be favored or promoted over them. Or maybe they simply don’t understand what certain DEI initiatives are trying to accomplish—they don’t know what the end goal is and how it fits into the larger picture.

These points of view can mainly be chalked up to a lack of information and can be handled through further education and training. However, there are also those who are problematic in a different way—those who say or do things that are harmful, exclusionary, or discriminatory (whether they realize it or not).

Whatever the case, it is vital to sit down with these individuals—the naysayers and the problematic types—and discuss the merits of DEI-centered work, why it matters, and (possibly) why their actions are harmful (or potentially harmful).

These are not easy conversations to have! How can you navigate this difficult terrain to achieve a positive outcome and increased understanding, empathy, and appreciation for DEI efforts? While there’s no simple answer, here are 7 tips you can use:

Aim for Understanding

What is the root of the problem? Is the person across the table used to doing things a certain way and are resistant to change? Do they feel their job is in jeopardy and are lashing out because of that perception? Have they said something harmful to another employee and they don’t understand why their statement was offensive?

Once you understand where the other person is coming from, you can better communicate and address their concerns.

Listen Actively

When engaging in a DEI-centered conversation, it’s essential to listen actively. Pay attention to the other person’s words and body language. Ask questions for clarification if needed. Show that you are present and engaged in the conversation.

Remain Calm

Difficult conversations can easily get heated, but it’s crucial to remain calm and composed. Keep your emotions in check and try not to get defensive. Remember that you are trying to achieve a positive outcome, and getting upset or angry won’t help.

Approach the Situation with Data…

Certain people will not be convinced of the merits of a DEI-centered approach unless you present them with data that directly addresses the problem at hand. If, for instance, someone doesn’t think equity and inclusion is a problem in the workplace, provide them with the data (hiring stats, retention rates, promotion stats, pay disparities) that show it is, indeed, a problem. You can choose to share information about your own company (if possible and permittable) or about the national workforce, in general.

A data-driven approach may also have to do with the specific situation. If you’re dealing with a harassment case, lay out the facts: “This happened on this date, in these circumstances. Here is why that’s problematic…”

Attempt to be as impartial as possible when presenting the facts of a situation. But sometimes, it’s a good idea to address the emotions associated with the situation.

…and Also with Emotion

Data can be a great tool, but emotions can be just as, or even more, powerful. Try to help the person across the table understand your (or another’s) point of view by discussing how certain scenarios impact people on a personal level. For example, you could explain how a lack of mentorship can make it harder for some individuals to advance in their careers, or how exclusionary language can make employees feel unwelcome and disconnected from the rest of the team.

Using personal anecdotes and stories (if you have permission to share them) can be a powerful way to help others understand why DEI efforts are necessary and valuable. Be sure to keep the conversation focused on empathy and understanding, rather than blame or judgment.

Make a Plan

Once you’ve had the conversation, it’s important to make a plan. This plan should outline some actionable steps the other person can take to address the issue at hand. Be sure the person is comfortable with the plan and clear on what it entails. Over the next few weeks, follow up to make sure they’re following through with their commitments.

Your plan might include anything from further education and training for the person in question, to providing resources for their team that will help them better understand DEI issues. Whatever you decide to do, make sure that it’s specific, clear, and achievable.

If Necessary, Take Disciplinary Action

In certain cases, disciplinary action is necessary. In these instances, it’s important to involve human resources or other relevant departments to ensure the situation is handled appropriately and in accordance with company policies. This may include anything from a verbal warning to termination, depending on the severity of the offense. Make sure the person receiving the disciplinary action is clear on why it’s happening and what needs to change going forward.


Conversations about DEI can be tough, but they’re essential for creating a fair and inclusive workplace. These conversations will not always go smoothly, but the more you have them, the more comfortable you will become with speaking about DEI issues. Keep in mind, you may not change someone's opinion overnight, but you may plant a seed that will grow over time. Use these tips to help facilitate tough conversations, and don’t be afraid to seek help or guidance from other resources when needed.

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