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How to deal with emotional triggers in DEI training

No one talks about the emotional fallout of DEI work. Here’s how to manage it.

How to deal with emotional triggers in DEI training
[Photo: Pixabay/Pexels]
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Jobs in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have increased by 71% over the last five years, and the work is gaining a foothold amongst leaders globally. But while discussions about anti-racism training, pay equity, and inclusive employee benefits are justifiably booming, a critical piece is still missing from the conversation: the emotional fallout of doing this work.

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People of color are tired of showing up to discussions about anti-racism; white people are coming out of them shocked, guilty and paralyzed; women and non-binary people are often having to relive trauma during gender bias trainings; DEI leaders are exhausted from compartmentalizing their personal turmoil from their work. The list goes on—yet, no one is openly talking about how to tend to our emotional health, so we can be strong enough to continue engaging with these programs.

Emotional preparedness is critical in DEI

All work affects us emotionally, but DEI is unique for two reasons. First, as Helen Krug von Nidda, an HR professional and executive coach, puts it: “DEI work has overtaken us. Thanks to social media and the always-on nature of news, there is now a virality to injustice that has increased the importance and urgency of DEI issues. We want to fix it all now, but that doesn’t mean we are emotionally equipped to handle the scale of this centuries-old problem.”

Secondly, she points out, engagement with DEI often leads to a loss of identity: you may think of yourself as free of bias, but this work may alert you to ways in which you uphold systems of oppression, leading to discomfort in how you view yourself and your place in society. “People don’t fear change as much as they fear loss, and the loss of your identity can be hard to digest,” says Krug von Nidda. All this makes inner preparedness essential in this work.

The success of DEI initiatives hinges on discomfort”

But where do you even start to lay the emotional groundwork for something as vast and varied as DEI? Here are some tips.

Get comfortable feeling triggered

What we often don’t consider about DEI is that it is, at its core, upsetting work. The goal of these programs is to rid us and our institutions of bias—and facing our biases, or the impact of others’ bias on us, is stressful. The success of DEI initiatives, then, hinges on discomfort. Expecting to feel uncomfortable, angry or sad lowers the chances of us being surprised by these emotions when they arrive, and shutting down. That is the, albeit difficult, starting point for effective inclusion work.

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Name your feelings to process them

Those confronting their biases may feel defensiveness, doubt, guilt, shame and/or denial. Those on the receiving end of the bias may feel resentment, pain, anger, helplessness and/or sadness. There are also those who sit at the intersection of both these groups who may feel both kinds of sentiments.

Processing these emotions begins with asking “What am I feeling?” and “Why am I feeling this?,” and getting specific. This also lets you put some distance between the physical reaction you may be feeling—like your hands shaking because you’re feeling angry during a discussion—and the reason behind that reaction, allowing you to fully unpack what’s going on.

Note that there is no one way to process your feelings. You can let them marinate within you, discuss them with a therapist, trusted friends or colleagues, and/or engage with relevant anti-bias resources (newsletters, books, videos). Analyze your psychological world whichever way(s) works for you, but refrain from wanting to “fix” or “find a solution” to the problem before you’ve focused on your “what” and “why.” For those impacted by bias, it’s also important to examine how much bandwidth you have, and pause or disengage entirely, if needed.

Assert your boundaries

When you’re the one experiencing bias, it may not be immediately clear to you what your appetite for engagement with redressal is. That’s OK. But once you know, make your boundaries known. Krug von Nidda talks about having been the only Black person in anti-racism conversations. Not wanting to be called upon to represent the Black experience she would meet with the facilitator, before the workshop began, to request that they not ask her to opine from a Black point of view during the discussion.

Another example of setting boundaries comes from Lauren Scherr, DEI lead at communications firm Mission North. Scherr, who is Asian American, has been moving through myriad emotions in the wake of anti-Asian violence. “After the shootings in Atlanta, I found myself replying to emails with ‘I’ll get back to you’ and opting out of Zoom meetings, but weeks later, I still need time to process my feelings.” She acknowledges that while it can be hard to advocate for your emotional needs at work, “we need to be compassionate toward ourselves, especially in the face of violence against our communities.”

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Give yourself grace

Regardless of how you’re engaging with DEI work, remember that there is no roadmap or timeline dictating how you’re supposed to feel. “Emotions don’t follow logic or a predictable cycle,” says Scherr. “The goal is to observe what you’re feeling without judgment, and to let go of the idea that you should be ‘over it’ by a certain time.”

These suggestions are not exhaustive or universally applicable. DEI work will raise varied emotions in everyone, depending on your relationship with the type of inequity you are trying to address. But, hopefully, the next time you find yourself feeling unsettled after a workshop or discussion, these tips can be a helpful starting point on your journey to emotional calm, healing, and, when you’re ready, action toward much-needed equity.

Puneet Sandhu is a London-based writer, marketer and DEI executive.