Things to be careful of in creating an inclusive workplace: Microaggressions Part 2: How to deal with microaggressions

Microaggressions are subtle statements of an aggressive nature that are repeated in everyday life. Although they often occur unconsciously, it is important to know how to deal with microaggressions when they arise.

In this column, the second part of a two-part series, we spoke with Dr. Vanessa Barros, CEO of LeadershipCQ and author of Don’t Mess with My Professionalism!, published in 2020, about what microaggressions are and how to deal with them.

In the previous column, we discussed what microaggressions are.

(Here’s the link to Part 1: Microaggressions hidden in everyday life.) This is Part 2: How to deal with microaggressions.

How to prevent microaggressions

Microaggressions can occur unconsciously. Therefore, to prevent them, we must intentionally choose words and actions that are inclusive of people with diverse attributes. If we don’t, due to the nature of our brains, we will inadvertently exclude someone.

By consciously and continually choosing words and actions that display respect for diverse people, we can put a halt to the brain function that unconsciously excludes others.

As discussed in the previous column, when we don’t pay attention, our brain’s judgement mode, which has been cultivated through the course of human history, automatically kicks in. This judgement mode, which automatically categorizes what we encounter based on the stories we have spun in our lives, is called the narrative brain.

Another, separate mode of the brain is the experience brain. When we consciously activate the experience brain mode, it turns on our antenna that is attuned to what’s happening around us and we create a focused awareness of the here and now that deeply connects us to our surroundings and our existence.

When you’re about to say something, the experience brain mode enables you to realize that the way you’re speaking may be unusual for the other person, or tells you to stop and mentally double-check whether what you were going to say could cause harm. Consciously double-checking your behavior in this way requires a lot of learning, training, and a strong awareness of how we would like to behave.

When you would like to confirm something with another person, we should ask them in a frank and humble manner. For example, when speaking to a non-Japanese person who is, or appears to be, fluent in Japanese, if you say something like, “You’re not Japanese, are you? Why do you speak the language so well?” you are flinging your assumption at them to confirm it. You must exercise caution because asking what may seem to be a casual question could have the unintended consequence of harming the other person.

To avoid imposing such preconceived lines of questioning on others, you should instead say, “Please tell me about yourself.” Doing so provides the other person with the opportunity to tell you whether they were born and raised in Japan or learned Japanese as a second language.

By consciously employing expressions that don’t include assumptions about others, you can train yourself in the use of your experience brain.

Another option is to ask open questions, which allow the other person to respond freely. Especially in Japan, when you ask a question that can be answered with a simple yes or no, you’re likely to get nothing more than “yes” for an answer. Since such questions make it difficult to draw out more information from the person you are talking to, if you’d like to find out more about them, then you should ask open questions.

Something else that is important to put into practice is observing events that take place in front of you as they are. Let’s consider the example we introduced in the previous column, in which you see a man and a woman together in a conference room and, based on your experience, assume that the man is the woman’s boss.

In a situation such as this, instead of making a snap assessment based on what you happen to be thinking at the moment, understand the situation by observing the actual behavior of the woman sitting in front of you and make your judgement. Even if your narrative brain is about to take over, you can tell yourself to wait a moment and see things as they really are.

By giving yourself a moment to pause and reconsider what you are going to say, you can avert an unconscious or inadvertent microaggression.

What if you commit a microaggression?

There may be times when we think back to an incident from our past and recall that we may have wrongly acted toward someone in a presumptuous manner. In such cases, we should first check with the person to find out whether they were hurt by what we said. If it seems that the other person didn’t have any issue with what was said, then there is nothing to worry about. But, on the other hand, if they did not view your behavior in a positive light, then you should offer them a sincere apology.

Additionally, if you feel the timing is right, you may want to take the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with the other person. If you’re able to engage in a dialogue that enables both parties to recognize the microaggression and, as a result, gain new insights into each other’s thinking and values, it can provide a great opportunity to deepen your relationship with the other person and grow closer. Not only will it allow you to get to better know the other person, it will enable someone who didn’t know you to understand your background and experiences.

When having such a conversation, it is important to let the other person know what it is that you value. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, each and every person within the organization is a small leader. If each person can take the initiative in addressing this theme and cooperate with empathy and understanding, it will make possible the most of the diversity that the organization has to offer.

What if you’re a recipient of a microaggression?

This positive approach to addressing microaggressions can also be applied when you find yourself on the receiving end of such comments.

When the person you are speaking to makes a comment that you perceive as a microaggression, it is important to remain calm, not letting your emotions get the best of you, and confirm the other person’s intent. This is because most microaggressions are committed inadvertently, often with the person who made the comment being unaware of the situation. For this reason, it is essential to first attempt to understand what it was that the other person wanted to say. Once you have made sure that you didn’t misunderstand what was conveyed, you can kindly and respectfully inform the other person what it was about what they said that hurt you.

This kind of constructive behavior should help both parties to realize a positive relationship in the medium to long term. This is because repeated microaggressions can lead to frustration and create situations in which communicating one’s feelings becomes problematic. Conversely, if the issue isn’t addressed, what was said will likely be repeated again.

Having a constructive conversation with someone who commits microaggressions requires that you be inclusive toward them, something that often entails restraint and emotional control. It’s necessary to have a dialogue to confront the stereotypes that the other person has and get them to discontinue holding certain assumptions. Such dialogues will help those who engage in them build closer relationships.

What if you witness someone committing a microaggression?

In the event that you, as a third party, encounter a situation in which a microaggression has occurred, it will be necessary to change how you respond based on the type of microaggression that took place.

If the remark was clearly a microassault, a comment consciously expressed with the intent to demean the other person, then we recommend that you promptly intervene to stop it. Taking such action will allow the person who was on the receiving end of the microaggression to feel psychological safety, realizing that such an intentional microaggression will not occur again because people nearby will call it out.

Therefore, it’s important to immediately ask the person who made the comment what it was they just expressed to confirm that the remark was not misinterpreted. In addition, by sharing with the person the lesson that such comments can cause harm to others, and by asking what can be done to prevent a recurrence of such an incident, you can create an opportunity for everyone to consider together ways to avert similar occurrences in the future.

But what if you think the microaggression that you just witnessed may have been committed unconsciously? In such cases it may be better to talk to both parties separately after the incident rather than broaching the subject then and there.

Because your sensibility and that of other people are not exactly the same, it’s possible that the person you felt was the recipient of the microaggression didn’t view the comment in the same way that you did. For this reason, it is important to confirm how the person interpreted what was said.

If they felt that the incident was a microaggression, then confirm with them that it would be okay to discuss the matter with the person who made the comment and, if it is, arrange to talk about it separately with the other person. When you do discuss it, you should take care to ensure that you treat them with respect. If it seems as though the comment was made unconsciously, it is likely that no harm was intended.

Misunderstandings can also arise based on how a statement was expressed, the way the words were used, or how it was said. For example, in French, there are expressions that, if interpreted literally, are surprisingly nasty insults but, to the French, are a kind of idiom commonly used in everyday communication. Because misunderstandings can also occur due to a lack of knowledge of such cultural backgrounds, it’s important not to come to conclusions based on assumptions.

You should then provide the person who made the comment with a “learning opportunity” to consider how to be more accepting and respectful of others. Through this process it’s possible to help them progress from an inability to discern the implications of their remarks due to a lack of knowledge to gaining the understanding needed to take notice. This learning process will also enable you to build a closer relationship with the other person.

Many of the various problems that arise with regard to inclusion are caused by insufficient knowledge, which can be attributed to a lack of education. Whether the comment was made intentionally or unintentionally, it is important that everyone in the organization, including the person who said it, strive to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, which result in someone imposing their way of thinking on others.

In order to effectively deal with microaggressions, it is important to be aware of and learn about them, and to have the courage to actually act when they occur.

We should be aware that, based on the way that the human brain functions, microaggressions can occur at any time, and when they do, they provide us with opportunities to strengthen the diversity and inclusion of our organizations.

Through the process of diverse people understanding one another and solving problems one by one, we can bring everyone closer together. By sharing this constructive process with your colleagues, you can boost your own well-being as well as the well-being of the organization you belong to.

Note: This is an original article based on an interview with Dr. Vanessa Barros.

Reference links
About Dr. Vanessa Barros
Book: Don’t Mess With My Professionalism!