How to Start a Diversity Conversation in Your Professional Mentoring Program
October is National Diversity Awareness Month. In honor of this celebration, we thought we'd talk about how mentors and mentorees should start a conversation about diversity (because, after all, sometimes the hardest part is just getting started).
A diversity conversation doesn't need to be difficult. Share the topic in the natural context of a mentoring conversation or make an effort to experience it in a shared activity. Here are some tips on how to approach diversity conversations:
Tell your story. It's harder for someone to relate to you in a stereotypical way after he or she has learned more about who you are. Take the initiative by sharing some of your history. In that process, state why an issue is important to you.
Here's an example. Imagine a mentor or mentoree saying this: "At my first job as a disabled person, I had to learn how to get people to view me as a ‘whole person' instead of someone with a disability. People would offer to do things for me out of kindness, but this emphasized my disability, so I had to request that they stop doing this."
This kind of sharing helps the other person understand your view of how you see yourself and how others have seen you. This information will help your mentor or mentoree avoid making the same mistakes with you.
Be honest. Mentoring has to involve honest dialogue. Mentorees should not defer to mentors when it's not in their best interest. When mentors share an experience/suggestion that worked for them, they may assume it will work equally well for their mentorees. Instead of ignoring the advice, the mentoree can help the mentor by sharing why that approach won't work: "Fred, it sounds like your approach in this situation demonstrated your leadership capability, and it's a great example. My concern is that this will probably not work for me. As an African-American male, if I use the same approach, I might be perceived as difficult or too controlling."
Remember, elephants belong in the circus. We've all been in circumstances where people avoid talking about the obvious issue. This can happen with diversity. Since it can be an uncomfortable discussion, we have a tendency to avoid talking about it. But talking about diversity can be one of the most powerful and satisfying conversations that a mentoring pair can have. Both partners are changed by the exchange because both learn to confront their own biases and stereotypes.
So who should begin the conversation? Either party. Mentors should not feel it's up to the mentoree to bring it up, nor should mentorees feel that it's the mentor's job to do so. Both have equal responsibility. Chances are if one person asks the other to tell his or her story, then the subject naturally comes up during that process.
Share a common activity involving your own culture/ethnicity. This might involve sharing a certain food or event that's specific to you that allows your mentoring partner to get to know more about you. We all have different customs from common celebrations: Christmas, New Year's, etc. Sharing these customs and traditions can be a fun way to ease into deeper conversations about mentoring and diversity.
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