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

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hey there. Thanks for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. It’s Toby Mildon here, and I’m joined by Helen Farmer. Now, Helen 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, and hoping to do more speaking engagements so that we can have an impact on the world this year. And I’m catching up with Helen today because we want to have a conversation about the need to be brave and have some frank conversations when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and how we can have some of those brave and frank conversations within the workplace particularly. So, Helen, thank you for joining me. It’s lovely to have you on the show.

Helen Farmer: Thanks, Toby. It’s great to be here and do some exploring with you about these conversations.

Toby Mildon: So I gave a very brief outline, but could you go a bit deeper into who you are, what you do, and what led you to this point in time?

Helen Farmer: So 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 different projects and programs, all sorts of different sectors, often multi-partner programs and internationally as well. So across education, entrepreneurship and stuff. But this latter part, I’ve got really interested in working on all sorts of different things, from school to boardroom, with young people, with businesses, and universities, all sorts of different people on some really amazing projects. So my career and my own journey has led me to care a lot more about… Justice and belonging are the two values I held most dear. And I’m keen to see what else I can do as a person in supporting other people with making better work and work places.

Toby Mildon: That’s really cool. It sounds like we’re on the same page, professionally and values based as well. So one thing I know that you are keen on is having brave and frank conversations when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I know it’s an area that some of my clients struggle with. They’re afraid of saying or doing something that might cause offense or maybe cause embarrassment. And I know that particularly senior leaders suffer from this as well because, often because they’re a senior leader in an organization, that they feel like they have to have all the answers. But what is it that you mean by having brave and frank conversations?

Helen Farmer: I think it’s come from… It’s partly age and stage in my life and business, I think. But it’s also 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. And I just 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. And the more deep, open, honest conversations that I’ve been privileged to have, have made me feel more real, if that makes sense?

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

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

Toby Mildon: So it’s almost like if we want to see progress, we need to lean into those brave and frank conversations with people. That’s really quite potent. I was talking to a client yesterday actually, who was saying that she’s just started taking on a DNI role within a business, and she has felt that her eyes have really been opened and she’s a lot more aware of things in society, like inequality, racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and all of those kinds of things. And she’s having to have very quite difficult conversations with people outside of work, in her own friends and family, and almost like having to call out the behaviours like racism that she noticed somebody in her family were making. But yeah, unless we have those conversations, I think we’re not gonna see progress. And I think… I’m really interested in the word, you said the unsaid. That word really stuck out for me. So what do you feel are the unsaid conversations that we should be having in the workplace? Who should be having those conversations?

Helen Farmer: So I think it ties in with what you were just talking about there. I think there’s… I just think there’s masses of stuff that we don’t say, and I think some of it we might never say, but others of it, I think what we do, especially if you’re in a privileged position. There’s a kind of duty and a need to do that. And I think in some ways, 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, as well as everything you mentioned, there’s this so much stuff that needs to be done. But I feel like there’s a door that we’ve kind of… In my mind, I think about it like doors. You’ve got doors of what is said and stuff that is easy, and you can go through that whenever you like. And then you’ve got the unsaid, and you choose… You make a choice whether you go through that door or not.

Helen Farmer: And I think sometimes there’s no turning back. Once you go through there, you become more real, more vulnerable. And I think that the whole society work and everything, that we are in a place that we’ve never been before, and we need to talk about it, and talk about what’s going on and what’s not going on. Otherwise, we will never make the difference. So, I’m not sure if I’m being specific enough? But I think there’s something about a really amazing person that I know who runs a really important organization locally, 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 like how crap the system was or the process was for X, Y, or Z, that’s when she was starting to see results and see things change.

Helen Farmer: Because I think there’s a lot of comfort that people get held in, whichever side of the system benefit they’re on or not. But I just think there’s so much that needs to happen to be more creative and disruptive. And it’s not all bad stuff as well, 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, minority people, disabled and all sorts of different things. And it’s a really exciting time, but it’s still really difficult, and we’ve got to go there 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.

Toby Mildon: This is a bit like being an inclusive leader. And if we look at something like the six signature traits of inclusive leadership that Deloitte created, they talk about that an inclusive leader needing to be bold, and having to call stuff out, having difficult conversations. And so what you were describing there is really one of those characteristics, if you like.

Helen Farmer: Yeah, and I think it’s partly with 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. Like if you work for yourself or if you’re a leader working for your own organization or a big one, you might not necessarily have all the answers or know where to go to get support and you might not… 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.

Toby Mildon: So what do you think could help people have more of these important, braver, franker conversations?

Helen Farmer: I think people need space and support. And they need to figure out which spaces and which people and which stuff supports them, and that you’re only gonna find that out by doing that and going there and experimenting with different people and places. So for me personally, I’m gonna be exploring and creating thinking spaces, either sign-posting and connecting people to spaces that already exists, where you can go and get some extra support and do some exploring. Maybe an online community or something. Trying to take a step back and think about where you can get one or 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. And I don’t think… It can be exciting, it can be… I don’t think there’s anywhere you can’t go, in a book or a podcast or online these days.

Helen Farmer: It’s not that you have to do everything publicly or visibly, or you can find your safe space. I am addicted to books and stories. And there’s this… I think as well, it’s this thing. There’s a book that really inspired me called The Ethics of Us by Patricia Ellinsworth, and this, she talks about lots of different things, but this ‘us’ is bigger than any us at all. And it’s almost like, how can you give yourself enough space if you’re privileged or you have the capacity to actually step back and go, “Okay, what is the bigger thing that needs done or the bigger thing that needs to talked about?” And then figure out how to make that happen. And not to be a bystander or think about where you have been or might end up being a bystander. Because otherwise, if you’re not actively including people, you more than likely could be passively excluding them, which is something that I covered in a program we ran last year.

Toby Mildon: So I know we’ve touched on some of the reasons why, but maybe this is a good point where we can summarize the top reasons why we need to be having these braver, franker conversations within the work place.

Helen Farmer: So if I were to try and choose the top reasons, I would say we’ve gotta have them because progress whilst it exists and there’s some brilliant stuff going on, it’s really slow. It’s painful. It’s just not fast enough. If you look at a specific sector, you might say like in engineering, there’s been loads of outreach or stem or role model this or that going on, which is brilliant. And I want my children and everyone else’s children to be supported to explore that if they wanted to. But it is actually plateaued, and in some cases got worse in these different sectors. So I think more has to be done about being really honest about not just doing the fun stuff of inclusion, but actually making sure you go back inside your organization and get really honest with making stuff different.

Helen Farmer: Because the second reason I was gonna mention is people are asking is it worth it? So even… And that’s heard at an early stage or they might be when they’re already in your organization. Someone that’s underserved, they would be at risk of leaving or not progressing through no fault of their own. But people, talented people, even if they see that there’s a supposed open door to go in to, say, engineering, where we know there’s a shortage of skills, they’re just asking if it’s worth it because they haven’t and can’t see enough support there and enough change happening to make it worth all that effort. And the third thing I would say is we need to have it because the burden of resilience is very heavily on underserved people. There’s a book about fixed workplaces, not women.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Helen Farmer: So 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 doubly triply, a multiply vulnerable situation, and it shouldn’t have to be just their responsibility. We’ve got to support people to… And I say we… That’s all… It’s a big loaded word, and it does go to my privilege as well, but yeah, we’ve just got to be really honest. If we are gonna make change, there’s gotta be bigger stuff that can happen.

Toby Mildon: So how do we know that having these brave or frank conversations are working? When is a good time, and when it’s not a good time to have these conversations?

Helen Farmer: So, I think in some ways, there’s… Like a lot of things there’s never a good or a right time, but also it’s not just a case of going willy-nilly and chucking things out there without being more self-aware of what… The wider stuff that might be going on. Because 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 gotta be instinctive as well. But in terms of knowing what’s working, I think some stuff is vulnerable and private and it stays in the vault. And you need, like Brene Brown describes, and you need permission to share it. It’s not your story to share, and people need to feel the psychological safety. And also, I was thinking that in terms of when it’s good to have these frank conversations. Listening itself, I was thinking, is a conversation in itself.

Helen Farmer: So actually just either holding a 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 gonna say next or how you could help them, which I completely am at risk of doing quite often, ’cause I always want to help. But it’s not necessarily helpful and it’s trying to stop.

Toby Mildon: Like you were saying earlier, it’s about deep active listening, which in itself is creating that space that you were talking about earlier, that needs to create an environment where you can expand your awareness and education around things to do with D&I.

Helen Farmer: Yeah, and we had some great people in Zahra Ash-Harper and Analise Pauline, in the Creative Workforce of the Future program that we did locally in Bristol and the West of England in the last couple of years. And they shared some really interesting ways of looking at listening and about the public and private spheres. And actually, some people will never be comfortable with sharing their kind of inner-most thoughts or going to that deep place, where there’s others that can go there quite quickly. So it’s about kind of respecting somebody’s choice to go in or not. It’s also… Even if you go somewhere that’s quite a vulnerable place, people won’t necessarily be ready to join you. It’s a really important thing to do because I think the mental health aspect of it, which is something I care deeply about, ’cause of my own experience and the experiences in my family, I think that you have to just be really thoughtful and considerate and make those choices about doing it, that like having these conversations.

Toby Mildon: So, before we go, what does inclusive growth mean to you?

Helen Farmer: I like that question, because it makes me stop and think because I might sort of jump on my warrior horse and moan about it because I associate that, those kind of words with sort of popular, sort of maybe government or private patriarchal organizations and systems, about inclusive growth. And in some ways, I think maybe there’s… If it’s… 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 still keeping the status quo as it is largely.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Helen Farmer: So I’m curious to know, to also a learn more now and later about what you do and what it means in reality to you and your people, because yes, I just have this feeling that from what I’ve experienced, that systemically there’s a lot of keeping things as they are, investing in technology or high growth and scale-up and this or that. And the figures, they’re quoted all the time about McKinsey, the out-performance by including people of gender, of race. And you put some statistics I wasn’t aware of at all, I think out on LinkedIn yesterday about including people with disabilities as well. I’m generalizing and I’m maybe not being that specific, but I think there’s a lot of room for actually just stopping and thinking about what is the real difference that you can make as a person or organization or bigger group or collective of people on your own doorstep without just continuing on this growth trajectory of growing bigger, bigger, more money and everything. Just really looking seriously and listening to what you can do inside and outside your organization.

Toby Mildon: I’m really interested in your perspective of the terminology actually, ’cause that’s not how I have thought about it before. But those kind of systems in place in society, when I created… Or when I wrote the book, Inclusive Growth, the main point really for me 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 organization. And I wanted them to understand that actually a more diverse workforce, a more inclusive culture would help their organization grow and perform better. And that’s really the… That’s like the snapshot of the book, really. So yeah, that’s my kind of angle on it really.

Helen Farmer: Yeah, I think I need to read your book and add it to my bookshelf and stuff as well. But also, I’m aware that I need to sit in the conflict a bit more in terms of asking myself why… What’s niggling at me, what’s frustrating me. And I think it’s partly… It does relate to my own experience and research that I’ve done or seen in terms of people being expected to fit into a system that doesn’t serve them, including entrepreneurship and stuff. It’s technology start-up incubators or high growth ones, but then sometimes female businesses can be or other businesses can be dismissed as more sort of lifestyle. And I just think sometimes it is easier for people, organizations, big government or whatever is, to invest in the sort of seemingly safe, risk-free versions rather than actually going there with other things. So 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. And those programs 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I like your point actually about that, the system, because I talk to lots of organizations 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 organization, but are you then expecting people to just fit in, or are you prepared to adapt your organization to create a more inclusive environment where people feel that they belong, they feel respected for who they are, they feel empowered, they feel that they can progress within your business?” And I think that’s 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 organization so that everybody feels like they’re welcomed and that they belong. Or are we just expecting people to fit in? Because if it’s the latter, then you’re just going to recruit a bunch of people who will leave after joining. Or they’re gonna be really disappointed and disengaged, and that doesn’t serve anybody. So if somebody listening to us today wants to get in touch with you because something you’ve said has resonated with them, what should they do?

Helen Farmer: So I’m on LinkedIn. That’s probably the easiest way to find me. Always up for connecting and chat and exploring and either connecting or sort of curating stories and spaces for frank conversations is my mission this year. And yeah, just see what we can do to help more people set up these spaces and support that is gonna help them to navigate this stuff. I was lucky to do a creative workforce for the future program. So just jumping back a little bit, I don’t know if that’s allowed…

Toby Mildon: Yeah, that’s fine.

Helen Farmer: But that we have to do like a live… In effect, we were kind of doing some of the stuff you’re talking about. It was an amazing opportunity and a massive challenge. We worked with 60 organizations in the creative and cultural sector, Bristol and the West of England. And we had certain creative professionals who were from social and economic disadvantage or from the black and minoritized group. And they had a year-long program right alongside the businesses. So we had an inclusion program for the businesses and mentoring and skills and creative practice training for the young people. And they also then had… And that was for six months. And then they had two, three-month placements in the businesses, and we were doing that work that you’re talking about, about don’t just get one person and then think that’s done.

Helen Farmer: Actually there’s a massive amount of work to do. And I really like Cindy Gallop’s approach about don’t just recruit one diverse person, like one person is different to you that’s there. Get a whole lot in at once, then support them and do the different stuff that’s necessary because it’s, yeah, it’s a massive thing for them to do. And those people that came through that program were amazing, ’cause it was during a pandemic. There was the George Floyd’s death and it was unbelievable stuff that they were going through and… Yeah, so there’s loads that needs to be done, but doing it collectively can help as well.

Toby Mildon: That sounds really impactful. Thanks for sharing that. Hopefully, that will serve as some inspiration as to what some organizations could get involved in. Helen, thank you very so much for joining me today. It’s been a really interesting and fascinating chat with you. And I just hope that more leaders and organizations go out and have those braver and franker conversations. And if they want to chat with you further then to reach out to you and connect with you on LinkedIn. So yeah, thank you. Thanks, Helen.

Helen Farmer: Thanks, Toby, and thanks for making this space for me today. That’s been brilliant. Thank you.

Toby Mildon: You’re welcome. And thank you for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show with me, Toby Mildon and my guest, Helen Farmer. Hopefully, you found some really interesting nuggets of wisdom in our conversation about having braver and franker conversations. Until next time, I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. Take care.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at

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