At a recent retreat I facilitated focused on social change, a diverse group of people gathered, from company and foundation executives to grassroots activists and public housing residents. Their goal? To confront their own biases, form relationships across differences, and start to rebuild trust in their community. In our politically polarized society, the authentic conversations they had about race, religious differences, and our country’s often painful history were rare, courageous, and transformative.
Efforts like these exist alongside mounting evidence that in just about every facet of life—from education and health to housing and criminal justice—we are all acting in unconsciously biased ways. Recent studies have demonstrated that from prescribing pain medication to people with broken bones to yielding for pedestrians at a crosswalk, race plays a role in how we treat others.
Many studies have shown that our tendency to unconsciously favor or trust certain people more than others can be observed in the brain. This is likely a survival mechanism, deeply engrained because of our species’ need to make snap judgments about situations for safety’s sake. Unfortunately, the same neural wiring that kept our ancestors alive is not optimal for navigating complex interpersonal situations like hiring qualified candidates, determining risk in high-conflict police interactions, or assigning fair punishment to misbehaving students.
According to Nobel-Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, we all engage in two kinds of thinking: “fast thinking” and “slow thinking.” Slow thinking is the logical problem solving that occurs when we deliberately perform a task, such as writing an essay or solving a complex math problem. Fast thinking is a kind of unconscious response, such as when we slam on our car brakes before we’re consciously aware of a child running into the street.
This quick-thinking part of our neural wiring is responsible for keeping us alive, taking in cues from the world around us and responding to threats. Unfortunately, it’s also responsible for unconscious biases about people. The stew of false stereotypes that exists in our culture—men make better leaders, women are more emotional, certain races or ethnicities are smarter or harder-working than others—gets lodged in our brains and is then used to make snap judgments about the people we interact with.
But there is a solution to this problem: learning to overcome bias against people through deliberate effort.
In our recently published book, Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences, my organizational consulting partner, Tiffany Jana, and I used the science of unconscious bias as the starting point for making practical recommendations to mitigate its impact on behavior. We’ve taken these lessons to hundreds of organizations, businesses, and communities that want to eliminate bias from the way they treat their colleagues, employees, and customers.
Here are some of the steps we recommend as a good way to begin fighting bias in yourself.
1. Pay attention to how your bias shapes your environment
Eliminating the impact of bias in your life requires you to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Acknowledging that you have unconscious bias is not admitting a moral failing—this is part of the human condition.
Start a campaign of self-awareness, paying attention to the subtle ways in which bias may be impacting your behavior. Ask yourself: Are there people at work I always ask for advice, and others I ignore? Who is part of my friend group, and who might be missing?
You can also take an inventory of whom you trust. Just off the top of your head, name the top few people you would call if you received bad news or great news. How are those people similar to or different from you? Most of us trust others who are similar to us in significant ways.
Lastly, take an inventory of the media you are consuming—including news, books, music, TV shows, and movies. Are their perspectives basically similar to yours? Are the characters or authors telling stories that represent a different context from your own?
Once we acknowledge our bias and begin to pay attention to how it impacts us, we will be ready to do the work to overcome it.
2. Expose yourself to counter-stereotypical images
One of the most powerful ways to combat unconscious bias is to diversify the stories we encounter, so that we can connect with the humanity of people who may look and sound different to us. This means watching movies, reading books, or attending performances that target groups we are less familiar with.
It can also mean purposefully seeking inspiration from moral exemplars of different ethnicities, races, genders, and abilities. Studies have shown that being exposed to counter-stereotypical images and stories of people from other groups leads to less implicit bias.
My co-author, Tiffany Jana, shares a story in our book about how this worked for her. After a few negative experiences with Indian people in her workplace, she developed an unconscious bias against them, which she discovered later in her life was causing her to avoid all Indians. As she says:
It was not until I served on the board of directors for an innovative art gallery that my bias began to subside. I worked side-by-side with one of the most brilliant, engaging, and kind people I have ever known. My friend Prabir worked tirelessly to help the gallery become an East Coast destination and shape downtown Richmond, Virginia’s arts and culture scene. Five years of working toward the goal of bringing art to a great community alongside someone different from me changed my perspective and openness toward his entire demographic.
3. Reach out across difference
We can also seek ways to connect with people who are different from us in our everyday lives, whether at work or in our personal life.
That means keeping your eyes open and looking for opportunities rather than waiting for them to fall into your lap. For example, when you go to a work or social event, don’t simply scan the crowd for people you already know; look for people you don’t know—who might seem different from you—and see if you can strike up a conversation. Simple contact can be a powerful way to combat bias.
I took this step in my own life by joining an African-American church. As the only white person there, I initially felt awkward, unaware of social norms, and unfamiliar with the style of worship. Over time, however, I formed deep and meaningful relationships that have lasted over a decade, long after I stopped attending that church. The proactive step of seeking to make myself a minority in an everyday part of my life paid off through helping me take off my cultural blinders and form relationships with people I would have never met otherwise.
4. Ask, don’t assume; listen, don’t judge
Once you expand your comfort zone through building new relationships and consuming different media, it becomes easier to include more people in your own circles of trust. And research has shown that cross-group friendships can make a big difference in reducing prejudice and bias.
But how to create that trust? By learning to ask rather than assume, and to listen rather than judge. In this way, we can stop the disconnection that may arise through misunderstanding.
In psychologist Beverly Tatum’s excellent book on racial identity development, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, she writes about how a typical racial disconnect happens between grade-school friends at a very young age.
Imagine an African-American student has a negative interaction with a teacher, which she perceives as racially motivated. She shares this with her lifelong white friend, whose immediate response is, “That teacher is great; I’m sure she isn’t racist!” That is the moment, according to Tatum, when self-segregation begins and kids start to look for others who can understand and discuss their experiences.
The antidote to this disconnection is authentic listening and learning to ask meaningful questions. Your friend’s interpretation of her negative experience may not be correct—perhaps the teacher wasn’t being racist or sexist. But if your first reaction is to tell her she’s wrong before you even listen to her, you are driving a wedge between you.
To authentically connect with people across differences, you must suspend your own judgment long enough to actually hear their experiences. Ask open-ended questions and seek to understand rather than to challenge or convince.
As hard as it can feel to confront your unconscious biases, with motivation and effort these simple steps can set you down that path. And building authentic relationships across differences is an essential part of your journey.
This essay is adapted from Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016, 144 pages)