It’s no surprise that resistance and lack of buy-in can be major obstacles to successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) implementation.  I commonly work with organizations that are struggling with this very issue.  A typical case has staff outwardly supporting DEI efforts, while inwardly seeming to oppose change:  new policies and procedures are not being followed, promising practices appear to be ignored, or tools are shared only to collect dust.  It’s a frustrating situation.  No one is ever happy with the status quo, and sometimes these issues can bleed into client experiences. 

Through one-to-one conversations with staff, one might discover that what we thought was resistance is something else entirely.  Of course, sometimes it simply is resistance.  However, many times what we are really seeing is a sense of disconnection from organizational goals, feeling left behind during change, or fear of failure. 

As you can see, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another is critical for effective DEI planning and implementation.  Identifying root causes of behaviour does not mean excusing them; it simply means acknowledging where people are at, making space for dialogue and change, and doing so while keeping your eye firmly focused on goals of inclusion.  For DEI changes to be meaningful and sustainable, we needed to tap into our empathy.

What is empathy?

Many of you have likely seen the famous RSA Short, Brené Brown on Empathy.  Inspired the 1995 research of nursing scholar, Professor Theresa Wiseman, the short film develops our understanding of empathy by illustrating its four key attributes: 

  1. Perspective-taking: The ability to walk in another person’s shoes, or to see a situation through their eyes.
  2. Staying out of judgment: The ability to listen to other perspectives instead of jumping to conclusions.
  3. Recognizing the emotion: The ability to identify with what another is feeling, and to tap into that familiar feeling within yourself.
  4. Communication: The ability to voice our understanding of their emotions and to validate them.

In this respect, empathy is ultimately about connection.  It is about recognizing others’ humanity, understanding and giving space to their emotions, and challenging ourselves to be present.  As Dr. Brene Brown so eloquently says, “empathy is feeling with people”.

Ten years later, Daniel Goleman a leading thinker in the fields of Emotional Intelligence and Leadership further developed this concept in his writing.  Recalling a conversation with psychologist, Paul Ekman, known for his work around emotion and microexpressions, Goleman presented three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive Empathy: Being able to know how another person is feeling and what they are thinking.
  2. Emotional Empathy: Which occurs when you absorb the feelings of another person, often leading to a physical reaction.
  3. Compassionate Empathy: Understanding someone’s situation, feeling for them, and being driven to help.

As you can imagine, the key in this case, is balance.  Too much cognitive empathy can be perceived as dry and unemotional and can lead to manipulation.  Too much emotional empathy can lead to overwhelm, burn-out, and potentially a role reversal of the supporter and supported. Moreover, neither of these forms of empathy inspires action so their impact can be limited.

Particularly for the nonprofit sector, the goal should be to exercise compassionate empathy, where understanding and feelings drive action.  Putting these two conceptualizations of empathy together, Wiseman’s four attributes provides us with the magic formula to help us be more effective compassionate empaths.

Why is empathy important for good DEI?

For organizations that serve members of the public, there are clear benefits to embracing empathy in your DEI work. 

For one, empathy can shape your client or member experiences.  For instance, being able to feel for others can fuel our efforts to ensure we are offering respectful and culturally-relevant supports and services.  Empathy can also take us outside of our everyday realities and allow us to see the structural barriers that our clients might be facing, or the obstacles that members must overcome after receiving our services.   This can inform how we design and deliver programs, and how we define success. On the flip side, for organizations supporting members of the public who are in crisis, an empathetic lens might allow us to see how clients came to require services, requiring us to develop pre-emptive and holistic approaches.

Indeed, empathy is critical for meeting the needs of our clients and members.  It’s a necessary first step, provided we are exercising compassionate empathy and allowing connection to inspire action.  The second step involves looking into our organizations – our staff, volunteers, and collaborators — using empathy to drive good and sustainable DEI work.  Here are three more ways in which we can achieve this:

  1. DEI-related change management: Embracing empathy can allow us to put ourselves in our colleagues’ shoes, and plan for change management in a way that considers their needs, expectations, and perspectives. It’s important to take the time to listen to our internal stakeholders, as the insights they share can often illustrate opportunities for deeper connection and understanding, both internally and with our clients and members.
  2. DEI Capacity-Building: An empathetic approach to capacity building helps us understand where our colleagues are at and why they are where they are at. It allows us to lead with curiosity to learn more about their learning and development needs.
  3. Partnership Development and Collaboration: Like our staff and volunteers, our organizations may vary in their understanding of DEI, and move forward at very different paces.  This could be due to a variety of factors, such as an organization’s history or location. Empathy can support healthy and meaningful dialogues about DEI, helps us decentre our perspectives to hear others’, and allows us to continue moving the dial forward by bringing others along.

A gentle reminder

Empathy is clearly a great way to build connection and supportive collaboration around DEI efforts.  It is important to note that the goal is here is to build engagement, not to give in to resistance.  Instead, empathy should inform a sense of radical accountability, that is centred on the goals and values of an organization for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Join us for our live webinar happening on Thursday, February 13 at 1 pm ET, where we will be continuing the dialogue, and I’ll share the recipe for my secret sauce.  Hope to see you there!

Christina Sackeyfio is the Founder and Principal Consultant at Boldly Inclusive, a consulting, training and coaching firm specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion. She is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional, who worked for over a decade on social impact and innovation projects as a non-profit leader, capacity builder, community engagement specialist.  She sees inclusion as a lens for everything from strategy to program design and delivery and believes that if we stretch our thinking about DEI, it can be a way of doing rather than a thing we do.