8 minutes read

When we talk about inclusion, it is easy to slip into the trap of thinking that it is something we should try to achieve when we are doing our work. The truth is, many of the inclusive practices that we need to develop are transversal, applying in every corner of our lives.

The essence of inclusion is treating humans as humans and respecting the needs and preferences of each individual. It is about listening – really listening – to each other in order to understand where each of us is coming from, the histories of those in our group and our lived experiences.

Understanding Ourselves: Empathy and Bias

Knowing ourselves is essential if we want to create more inclusive spaces for others. Part of this is empathy. Can you think of a time when you felt like an outsider in a work or social space? What feelings did this bring up in you? What effect did it have on what you were willing to speak up and say? Did you feel heard, respected or understood in this group? Why or why not? What would have helped you in this situation?

Now turn it around. Have you noticed someone else feeling excluded within a group? Do you generally pay attention to this? What do you do if you notice someone feeling excluded? Your experiences will not be identical, but they give you a starting point for connection and the building of trust. Find the similarities and recognise the differences.

“I was in a situation a bit like this and I felt so many emotions.

I wonder if you might be feeling something similar? Do you want to tell me more about it?”

Now for a quick exercise, if you have the time. Just find a pen and something to write on, and note down the names of the five people you trust the most, who are not in your family. Now, for each of the following characteristics, put a tick next to each person who is the same or similar to you in terms of: age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion and economic status.

Do you have a lot of ticks? If so, this is a sign of affinity bias. Affinity bias is our tendency to feel more trust towards people that share similar characteristics or backgrounds to us. It is naturally ingrained in our brains, but it is also possible to override it, so long as we are aware that we have it.

For example, in a hiring process, you might keep a note of the characteristics (including personality traits) that you share with the candidate, so that you can differentiate between similar characteristics that may be contributing to bias and the skills, experiences and qualities of the candidate that would add to your workplace culture.

Unconscious bias against people in marginalised groups is unfortunately very common – including among members of marginalised groups, who have internalised dominant societal narratives. Harvard’s Project Implicit has a range of tests you can take to discover your own unconscious bias. These are also not set in stone. To tackle them, it’s time to listen.

The Inclusive Space: Making Space for Difficult Conversations

The ideal is to create a space where everyone can come as their authentic selves, where they don’t have to pretend to be somebody else in order to fit in. This means having to deal with conflict and difficult conversations. Conflict is natural and will arise wherever there people come together in a group. Learning to manage conflict is therefore vital.

On the one hand, this involves everyone recognising that people’s needs and sensitivities are different. Some people find uncertainty unsettling and need to know everything about what is happening; others are frustrated by detail and prefer to improvise. Some people thrive working alone, others need the feeling of belonging to a group. Some people love public praise, others would rather die than be praised in front of an audience. Understanding what different individuals need to feel psychologically safe can avoid a lot of pain and misunderstanding.

Be prepared! Have processes already in place for when something goes wrong. If someone feels attacked or harassed – who are they supposed to go to? What if the problem arises from that person? Who else can they go to? How can they reach out? Can they write it in an email? How often do you check in with individuals in your teams or choirs? A scheduled 1-on-1 meeting can provide the necessary space and opportunity for someone to bring something up that has been upsetting them but which they didn’t see as important enough to bother you with. 

Do not underestimate the importance of creating opportunities for people to voice their problems – and give them explicit permission to do so.

Understanding Others: How to Listen

We will never fully understand another human being. This is one of the reasons it is so important to have a diversity of people in positions of power so that each person can bring their own knowledge, lived experience and skills. “Nothing about us, without us” is a longstanding call for recognition of exactly this.

However, we can always understand someone else better, and the first thing we can do in this respect is listening. Of course, this is easier said than done. We do not get taught how to listen to each other at school, but it is a critical skill to be able to listen to someone in such a way that they feel that they have been listened to. If you are interested in improving your listening skills, take a look at Nonviolent Communication, based on the book of the same name by Marshall Rosenberg.

You might start by listening in order to be able to summarise what the person has said in your own words. Then try telling them the summary and asking for confirmation that you have understood correctly.

“I hear that you are upset because this has happened and you thought it was ignored by the group. Is that right?”

Try to listen to the feelings behind the words that someone is saying too. Oftentimes, angry words are masking pain and sadness – go there, not to the angry words. You can try suggesting what basic needs are present for them and allow them to agree with you or correct you.

“Because this happened, it sounds like you’re feeling pretty discouraged about participating and you are afraid to speak up again. That sounds very stressful, because you need to feel safe to contribute and for others to listen to you and respect what you have to say. Would you say that?”

And before you act on what you have listened to – remember to ask what that person would like to see happen next. Don’t risk embarrassing them, making them feel even more excluded, although you are acting with the best of intentions. The counterpart to active listening is asking questions.

Respectful questions show self-awareness and interest in improving. When you are working with someone from a marginalised group, ask them if they would be willing to give you feedback on what is working well and what could be done better. Make sure to ask if they would be willing first; there should be no assumption that they will be happy to talk about this with you.

Into Practice: Normalising Making Mistakes

All of this is going to take us time to learn and it will be a process of making mistakes over and over again. Diversity and inclusion is a topic that makes many of us feel very vulnerable and exposed, which is why normalising a culture of making mistakes is so important. 

In your work environment, you can establish in advance that you would welcome your colleagues making you aware if you have made them uncomfortable in some way. Listen to understand, recognise your mistake, admit to it, apologise to those affected and understand and speak to how you would approach this differently in future.

Be gentle with yourself – the process might be uncomfortable, but it is a contribution to justice in our societies. Trust the process, it is worth it.

Written by Sophie Dowden

The European Choral Association leads on the topic of inclusion in the SHIFT project, coordinated by the European Music Council and co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme.