Five principles for fostering a feeling of inclusion

Time to read: 6 minutes

A few weeks ago I ran a small ideation & affinity mapping workshop with some colleagues on the theme of Inclusion. And I want to tell you what we discovered.

What’s a DE&I activity?

The premise of the workshop was simple. I needed to put together a proposed budget for DE&I activities in the coming year.
My first reaction being asked this was « what’s a DE&I activity? » Do we define it in opposition to EXclusive activities? What’s an exclusive one? Do we only care about gender diversity? What about neurodiversity? Linguistic diversity?

…can you tell I’m an analytical overthinker yet?

So I ran a workshop

So I did what any self-respecting Experience Architect / Strategic Designer would do: I set up a workshop, to learn from / define with the team what we thought “inclusive events” meant.

By defining it ourselves, and building a small group consensus, we had better probabilities of a) being right (or at least not completely wrong) and b) ensure we represent more than one perspective in the definition. Which is the point – and strength – of diversity.

We found five simple things you can do to help people feel included

What we uncovered through the activity felt like a series of obvious universal truths about feeling included. And yet, so many office activities do not satisfy any of the principles we discovered and defined!

So here are the five simple things to check for and do, so you can help people feel included.

1. Make space, and invite people in

The first way to make someone feel included, is to acknowledge their presence, and invite them into the physical space. You can do this by pulling up a chair for them to sit with you. Or if you’re standing in a circle, take a step back so the circle gets big enough to fit them, too (that side shuffle doesn’t really work well, one needs to increase the perimeter).

Body language counts for a lot in inclusion, so be aware of it. Turn towards people who approach you, and say hello. Make space in the discussion circle for them. Invite people in. Don’t be the person who leaves approaching people staring at your shoulder. Turn, and bring them in.

2. Listen and respond. It helps if you can hear.

We feel seen and heard when we are literally seen and heard.

Events that have spaces where smaller groups can gather, and converse audibly with each other, work better for creating the feeling of being heard. Turn to face each other, see faces and show you’re listening, and check you can hear words across a distance.

This makes loud restaurants or large echoing spaces blasting loud music ineffective at inclusion. If you have to lean in and scream, or repeat yourself, how could you possibly feel heard?

3. Ask what they think

The largest theme we found, and which surprised us the most, was sharing. When someone was asked their opinion, given room to share it, and felt safe doing so, they felt included.

So here is your party trick for building a feeling of inclusion: Ask a quieter or silent participant « What are your thoughts on this topic? », and count to ten, to give them room to think.

If they answer, do not judge, conclude, or talk about yourself. Ask another question about what they said, even if it is as simple as « tell me more about that ». If they don’t answer, try « This makes me feel like… , does anyone else feel this too? »

4. Notice, show interest, and find common ground.

Finding common ground, or just showing interest for something that interests someone else, can be a show of acceptance of that person in the group.

So ask about a unique-looking garment, an accent you can’t quite place, or just what someone might be working on or reading right now. Be curious. Humans appreciate being seen. And finding common ground with other humans, such as a shared love of gelato or, more obscurely, mind maps.

Though I must draw the line at “where are you really from”. That question is out of bounds. Much more interesting to ask “what did you study at university”, or “what languages do you speak”, or even the kindergarten-friendly “what’s your favourite colour”.

5. Remember answers, and remember to ask.

If someone tells you about something they found interesting, or are working on, or are planning; remember it. And next time you see them, or just later in the conversation, ask about it. « How did that board meeting go? » or « How was the counter offer? », « What did the client say to the pitch? »

It’s small, and difficult to do. Especially the part where you should ask a question that has no right or wrong answer. (E.g. « what did the client say to the pitch? » is more inclusive (i.e. non-judgemental) than « did you win that pitch? », because it does not include the judgment of winning vs. not winning.

So remember, and ask – openly, and make others feel included.

Creating a foundation for an inclusive environment starts with something as simple as being open.

One needs to abstain from making judgements or conclusions about people, or indicating their superiority in a field, or talking about themselves and expecting attention. Gifting attention gives better results in terms of connecting with people.

This means that it does pose a challenge to people who are used to a certain way of communicating or being treated, and now need to learn to be more open.

The way to make people feel included and welcome, is to make it about them, to accept them as they are, and to ask them about themselves … while checking that there are no « right » or « wrong » answers to the questions you ask, to remove a feeling of being judged.

DE&I is a « hot topic ». Having done a good chunk of my growing up in Canada, one of the most diverse and inclusive countries on the planet, I take Diversity and Inclusion for granted, and find it odd when everyone looks and thinks the same way and finds the same things as comfortable or tasty as everyone else.

We’re SUPPOSED to be different!

For the curious: what we did in the workshop

The workshop format was very simple.

We used miro, and the session ran to one hour.

We started with a 5 min « hello, we’re here to talk about DE&I » introduction, to explain we were after what situations make people feel included.

Then we did a 10min quiet write. We each wrote as many answers as we could think of to the question of « think back to a time or times when you’ve felt included and welcomed. What was it that made you feel that way? »

We had about 40-50 post-its filled out, which we then spent 15min affinity mapping. We did some discussion there, trying to find good labels for the clusters, and debating which cluster an idea should fit into.

This left us with 30min to go.

We spent another 10min in breakout groups. Each breakout group took one theme, and came up with a bunch of event, activity, gesture, and setup ideas, that would fit the theme they were assigned. Each group did a 2min dot-voting activity on their ideas, so they could present back the 3 most-voted ones.

We ended the session with a 20min presentation and conversation around the ideas, and how we might incorporate them into our work-related events in the coming year.

And a few weeks later, it occurred to me that maybe others were looking at DE&I, and maybe I should share what I did and what I found. Not our ideas for our events, mind you. Those are ours. But the themes of actions that can make people feel included? Those were definitely up for being shared.

And I hope many of you will use the five principles in the coming year, to make all of us feel included.

So… because repetition is the key to learning:

1. Make space, and invite people in.

2. Listen and respond. It helps if you can hear.

3. Ask what they think.

4. Notice, show interest, and find common ground.

5. Remember answers, and remember to ask.