How to deal with our fear of each other

Start with calm and honest conversations

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago I wrote and read a lot about diversity in the workplace. There were books and articles everywhere encouraging us to take a good look around our business organizations to check if we look too much alike. All the same gender? All the same color? Nearly all the same age?

Eventually, we learned that diversity leads to an increase in creativity, productivity and profits. Most of us got that.

As our companies became more diverse, a new catchword developed – “politically correct.” Now came books and articles teaching us how to communicate with our diverse group of associates. We developed a heightened sensitivity to language. We learned – if we didn’t already know, that phrases that never would offend one of our look-alikes could be highly offensive to others. Consultants came in to help us with this sensitivity training.

Granted, there was some resistance in the ranks and there still is. But by and large, people learned to cross barriers of color, age and gender to work together for the growth of the organization. By and large, we began to respect and appreciate differences. This is an ongoing process, but the trend is upward. What might have felt unnatural in the beginning became simply considerate. That kind of growth feels good and sure makes our time at work more fun and congenial.

And now what?

Our hearts and minds have been battered about by the steady stream of violence in our country and in the entire world. We are in the middle of an election year unlike any in recent memory. On television and online, we see and hear vitriolic exchanges from people who even look pretty much alike but have clashing political, religious or societal views. There doesn’t seem to be much listening going on. Compassion and empathy, hallmarks of our nation, seem to be in short supply.

“What must we do?” You hear that everywhere, I am sure, just as I do. The answers don’t seem to be coming. There are protests, some reasonable and calm, some contentious and dangerous to anyone involved or just standing nearby. Blame is spat out with amazing conviction, but not much consensus. There is fear everywhere, but sprinkled about in unequal portions depending on where you might live or work.

I have no vision of a solution. I fear the erosion of our humanity. The only thing I can offer to business leaders and their associates is to start wherever you are. Nearly everyone is trying to deal with the same set of fears. Calm and honest conversations among groups of your employees, diverse groups as mentioned above – that’s one place you might start. Brainstorming sessions should be considered. However you address the situation we’re all in, the outcome should result in an action plan – unique to your firm possibly, in compliance with your values and realistically achievable with the resources at hand.

This paragraph was near the end of a letter E.B. White wrote in answer to a man who had lost faith in humanity:

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people, we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time, waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out. Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope.”

-Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee-area resident. She can be reached at jgorissen1@gmail.com.

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