Brave Conversations Opening the Door to the Unsaid

Helen Farmer is a diversity and inclusion and social mobility consultant, activist and speaker. In this episode of the Inclusive Growth show, Helen and I talked about the need to be brave and have frank conversations when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Photo of Helen Farmer

Helen Farmer is a diversity and inclusion and social mobility consultant working across all sorts of different sectors, so she’s got tons of experience. She’s also an activist and a speaker.

We started our own brave and frank conversation with me asking Helen to go a bit deeper than my introduction and tell me who she is, what she does, and what led her to this point in time?

‘I’m based in Bristol and I started my own business about nine years ago. I’ve been working for about 25 years, and I’ve been lucky to work in all sorts of projects and programmes across different sectors, often multi-partner programmes, internationally as well.

In the education sector, I’ve become interested in working on everything from the school to the boardroom, with young people, with businesses, and with universities on some amazing projects. My career and my journey have led me to see justice and belonging as the two values I hold most dear. I’m keen to see what else I can do supporting other people with making better work and workplaces.’

Brave and frank conversations

From what Helen said it sounds like we’re on the same page, professionally and in our values as well. One thing I know Helen is keen on is having brave and frank conversations when it comes to diversity and inclusion and that’s an area some of my clients struggle with. They’re afraid of saying or doing something that might cause offence or embarrassment. I know that senior leaders might particularly suffer from this since they feel like they have to have all the answers. I asked Helen what it is that she means by having brave and frank conversations?

‘It’s partly age and stage in my life and business, I think. It comes from a place of frustration and anger and necessity and hope as well. I think there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get said that keeps people in systems safe, that can keep people and stuff down. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be said and we need to be braver as individuals and groups in going ‘there’ with some of the stuff that’s unsaid. The more deep, open, honest conversations that I’ve been privileged to have, have made me feel more real.

Some conversations aren’t for sharing and they’re just one-to-one. And some, happen in your head and you might never ever say them out loud. I think some of those inside and outside conversations could be more honest. We have to go there with the scary bit or we’re not going to make the progress that is out there to be had, to make the world better.’

It’s a potent idea that if we want to see progress, we need to lean into those brave and frank conversations with people. I was talking to a client recently, who said they’ve just started taking on a D&I role within a business. It’s been an eye-opener and they are a lot more aware of things in society, like inequality, racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, all of those kinds of things. This person is having to have very quite difficult conversations with people outside of work, with their friends and family. Things like calling out behaviours like racism they’ve noticed somebody in their family making. Unless we have those conversations, we’re not going to see progress. I’m interested in the word, Helen said – ‘unsaid’. That word stuck out for me.

Unsaid conversations

I asked her, ‘What do you feel are the unsaid conversations that we should be having in the workplace? Who should be having those conversations?’

‘There is masses of stuff that we don’t say, and I think some of it we might never say. If you’re in a privileged position though there’s a duty and a need to do that. Maybe the last couple of years with the pandemic or the trauma of people seeing George Floyd’s murder and racism and anti-racism stuff that comes up, there’s so much stuff that needs to be done.

I think about it like doors. You’ve got doors of what gets said, the easy stuff, and you can go through that door whenever you like. And then you’ve got the door of the unsaid, and you have to choose whether you go through that door or not.

Sometimes there’s no turning back. Once you go through that door of the unsaid, you become more real, more vulnerable. Society, workplaces, everything we are in a place that we’ve never been before. We need to talk about it. What’s going on and what’s not going on. Otherwise, we will never make a difference.

There’s an amazing person that I know who runs an important organisation locally. She said that she’d found that when she started saying stuff was when she saw more progress. So rather than putting someone else’s comfort first and maybe not saying how crap the system was or the process was for X, Y, or Z, she spoke up and that’s when she started to see results and things change.

People get comfortable wherever in the system they are in. I think there’s so much that needs to happen to be more creative and disruptive. It’s not all bad stuff. There’s amazing stuff about the stories that just never have been told. It starts before school. All the missing books on our bookshelves about women, Black people, people from minority groups, disabled people and all sorts of different things. It’s an exciting time, but it’s still difficult. We’ve got to go there even with the fear, but you have to be in the right place to do it as well. We don’t want it to be traumatic for people, even if it’s vulnerable.’

The role of the inclusive leader

What Helen describes remind me of the characteristics of an inclusive leader. I am specifically thinking about the six signature traits of inclusive leadership that Deloitte created, where they talk about an inclusive leader needing to be bold and having to call stuff out and having difficult conversations.

Helen agreed. ‘I think it’s partly the leadership thing as well. It’s not always only about inclusion, because there’s a lot of work out there about how lonely it can be at the top. If you work for yourself or if you’re a leader either working for your own organisation or employed in a large one, you might not necessarily have all the answers or know where to go to get support. You might be a bit worried about a whole number of things, business survival or status or reputation or who knows what. But there’s something that comes with honesty, and not knowing makes you more ready than to be able to receive or ask for help as well, whatever it is you’re dealing with.’

I asked Helen what she thinks could help people have more of these important, braver, franker conversations?

‘I think people need space and support. They need to figure out which spaces, people and stuff support them. They can only find that out by doing that, going there and experimenting with different people and places. Personally, I’m going to be exploring and creating thinking spaces, either sign-posting or connecting people to spaces that already exist, where you can go and get some extra support and do some exploring.

Maybe that’s in an online community or something. Somewhere you can try to take a step back and think about a combination of expert support, peer support, people trying to do the same thing as you, and just knowing that actually, it’s completely normal to experience all this stuff that you’re experiencing. And also your own stuff, because the more honest you are with yourself about what you’re doing or not doing, and the more vulnerable you are and aware of what’s involved in being vulnerable, then hopefully the more sort of supportive you can be for others. It’s exciting. I don’t think there’s anywhere you can’t go, in a book or a podcast or online these days.

You don’t have to do everything publicly or visibly, you can find your safe space. I am addicted to books and stories. There’s a book that inspired me called ‘Us Before Me: Ethics and Social Capital for Global Well-being‘ by Patricia Illingworth in which she talks about lots of different things, but this ‘us’ is bigger than any us at all. It’s about how can you give yourself enough space if you’re privileged or you can let yourself step back and think, “Okay, what is the bigger thing that needs to be done or the bigger thing that needs to be talked about?”

And then take steps to figure out how to make that happen. Think about how not to be a bystander. Or think about where you have been or might end up being a bystander because if you’re not actively including people, you more than likely could be passively excluding them.

3 reasons for brave and frank workplace conversations

#1 Progress is too slow

Whilst there is progress and there’s some brilliant stuff going on, it’s just not fast enough. It’s painful. If you look at a specific sector, say engineering, there’s been loads of STEM outreach in schools and role modelling going on, which is brilliant. But it’s plateaued, and in some cases got worse in these different sectors. More has to be done not just doing the fun stuff of inclusion but to make sure you go back inside your organisation and get honest to make stuff different.

#2 Proving it’s worth it

Whether the audience is an early-stage career or already in your organisation, if someone feels that they are under-served, they might be at risk of leaving or not progressing through no fault of their own. Even talented people, even if they see that there’s a supposed open door are asking if it’s worth it because they haven’t had and can’t see enough support there and enough change happening to make it worth all that effort.

#3 Fixing the workplace not the people

The third reason we need those conversations is that the burden of resilience weighs heavily on under-served people. Instead of trying to fix people, try and fix your workplace. But also more recently someone described that burden of resilience, where it ends up being on the under-served person to speak up, and they’re then put in multiple vulnerable situations. It shouldn’t have to be just their responsibility. We’ve got to support people. I say ‘we’ it’s a big loaded word. It goes to my privilege too. If we are going to make a change, there’s got to be bigger stuff that can happen.’

Timing of brave and frank conversations

I asked Helen how we would know if having these brave or frank conversations are working? And I was also curious about when is a good time to open these conversations, and when maybe it’s not.

‘Like a lot of things there’s never a right time, but also it’s not just a case of going willy-nilly and chucking things out there without being self-aware of what wider stuff might be going on. If you or the other person is in any way at risk of trauma or triggering or judgment that doesn’t need to be made then you’ve got to be instinctive as well. So when is it good to have these frank conversations? If you aren’t sure, listening is a conversation in itself.

In terms of knowing what’s working, I think some stuff is vulnerable and private and it stays in the vault. You need permission to share it. It’s not your story to share. People need to feel psychological safety. Whether it’s holding space or creating space to simply listen to somebody and let them get to the end of telling their story is a conversation in itself without thinking about what you’re going to say next or how you could help them. I am at risk of doing that quite often because I always want to help. But it’s not necessarily helpful.’

I agree it’s about deep active listening, which in itself is creating that space that Helen mentioned. It plays a part in the need to create an environment where we can expand our awareness and education around things to do with diversity and inclusion.

Helen agreed but was also keen to stress that, ‘some people will never be comfortable with sharing their kind of inner-most thoughts or going to that deep place. Others can go there quite quickly. It’s about respecting somebody’s choice to go in or not.

Even if you go somewhere that’s a vulnerable place, people won’t necessarily be ready to join you. It’s a really important thing to do. I think that you have to just be thoughtful and considerate and make those choices about doing it, like having these conversations.’

Inclusive growth

Before I let Helen go, I had to find out what inclusive growth means to her.

‘I like that question because it makes me stop and think. I could jump on my warrior horse and moan about it because I associate those kinds of words with popular, maybe government or private patriarchal organisations and systems, about inclusive growth.

In some ways, I think maybe it’s my bias that needs to be explored or broken, but I feel like inclusive growth sometimes might be an excuse for people to just do their version of doing some kind of inclusion, but still growing and largely keeping the status quo.

I just have this feeling that from what I’ve experienced, systemically there’s a lot of keeping things as they are, whilst investing in technology or high growth and scale-up and this or that.

I think there’s a lot of room for stopping and thinking about what is the real difference that you can make as a person or organisation or bigger group or collective of people on your doorstep without just continuing on a trajectory of growing bigger with more money and everything. Just looking seriously and listening to what you can do inside and outside your organisation.’

Helen’s perspective on the terminology is interesting since that’s not how I have thought about it before. When I wrote the book, Inclusive Growth, the main point was that I wanted to reframe diversity and inclusion for business leaders, because so many business leaders that I spoke to felt like diversity and inclusion was a box-ticking exercise or was window dressing or just being used to raise the profile of the organisation. I wanted them to understand that a more diverse workforce and a more inclusive culture would help their organisation grow and perform better. That’s my angle on it.

Helen replied that she is aware she wants to sit with the conflict a little more in terms of thinking ‘What’s niggling at me? What’s frustrating me? I think it relates to my own experience and research that I’ve done where people are being expected to fit into a system that doesn’t serve them, including entrepreneurship and stuff.

Sometimes female businesses or other businesses can be dismissed as lifestyle companies if they aren’t those start-up tech firms. Sometimes it is easier for people, organisations, big government or whatever is, to invest in the sort of seemingly safe, risk-free versions rather than going there with other things.

We’ve got a new incubator in Bristol that is starting, by Black Southwest Network and a load of partners, very specifically on supporting social entrepreneurs because the investment just doesn’t happen. Those programmes that exist have not been serving them. They serve the people that they serve very well, but there needs to be more specific support whilst people to navigate and work in this broken system.’

I like Helen’s point about the system. I talk to lots of organisations where they want to get more diversity into their business, and then I say to them, “Okay, yes, we could get more diversity into your organisation, but are you then expecting people to just fit in, or are you prepared to adapt your organisation to create a more inclusive environment where people feel that they belong. Where people feel respected for who they are. They feel empowered. They feel that they can progress within your business?”

I think an interesting conversation that senior leaders should be having is, ‘Why do we want more diversity? And when we do have more diversity, how committed are we to changing the culture of the organisation so that everybody feels like they’re welcomed and that they belong. Or are we just expecting people to fit in?’

If it’s the latter, then you’re just going to recruit a bunch of people who will leave after joining. Or they’re going to be disappointed and disengaged and that doesn’t serve anybody.

Helen’s mission for this year is connecting, exploring and curating stories and spaces for these frank conversations. She said, ‘I just want to see what we can do to help more people set up these spaces and support what will help them to navigate this stuff. I was recently lucky to do a creative workforce for the future programme. It was an amazing opportunity and a massive challenge. We worked with 60 organisations in the creative and cultural sector in Bristol and the West of England. We had creative professionals who were from social and economic disadvantage or Black and minoritised groups. They had a year-long programme right alongside the businesses. There was an inclusion programme for the businesses and mentoring and skills and creative practice training for the young people. That was for six months. Then they had two, three-month placements in the businesses, and we were doing that work that you’re talking about. Inclusive growth isn’t about getting one person and then thinking that’s done.

There’s a massive amount of work to do still. The people that came through that programme were amazing because it was during a pandemic. There was George Floyd’s killing; unbelievable stuff that they were going through. Yes, there is still loads that needs to be done, but doing it collectively helps.’

To get in touch with Helen and talk to her about anything in this article or to find out more about having brave and frank conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion visit her LinkedIn page

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