Why does Ally Skills Training Work?

Photo by  drmakete lab  on  Unsplash

By Willie Jackson and Kim Tran, Ph.D

One of the challenges that DEI firms face is how to explain what we do and how our work is implemented. Is it diversity recruiting? Unconscious Bias workshops? Crisis mitigation? And even experienced practitioners have little insight into the experiences that others have had—both good and bad—as they’ve engaged with this work.

To make matters worse, training materials are often proprietary and the anecdotes shared in workshops are often confidential. So after facilitating our hearts out, making public commitments, and illuminating insights about how we can all do our work better, most folks simply return to their busy lives and don’t even feel like they have time to fill out a feedback survey.

Despite these challenges, there’s a lot more DEI advocates and practitioners can do to democratize our expertise. To that end, I’d like to share why Ally Skills training works, and why we think it’s effective.

Making an ally of our biology

As many frazzled inclusion leaders and diversity committees will attest, DEI conversations can be emotionally charged, unproductive, and unwieldy. The very topic can send the most well-intentioned leaders into a tailspin of defensiveness and deflection. We simply lack the tools and practice to successfully navigate these conversations.

When we feel fear or shame or embarrassment or even the threat of these emotions, our bodies immediately go into a state that primes us for confrontation or a quick exit (fight or flight). In some ways, it doesn’t matter what we look like or how we were raised when we’re emotionally triggered—cortisol and adrenaline affect us all the same.

Acknowledging this reality, we take great pains to create psychological safety in the spaces where we facilitate. This is sometimes in tension with the broader organizational reality, and it’s a fool’s errand to ignore this.

So what can you do?

If cortisol (the body's main stress hormone) and adrenaline (responsible for our elevated heartbeat and anxiety when emotionally activated) work against us in bringing our best selves to challenging conversations, two of the biological counterpoints are dopamine and serotonin.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates our emotional responses, and serotonin is associated with feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

Happily, one of the quickest shortcuts to producing more of these compounds in the body is through gratitude. This is why we begin trainings with space to reflect on the things for which we’re grateful. It’s a biological insurance policy that increases the likelihood of a successful conversation.

And yes, we also create environments where trust can be established, where mistakes can be made, and where we’re free to suspend our suspicion that someone in the room intends to cause us harm. Saying it doesn’t make it so, but by modeling gratitude and humility and vulnerability, we regularly witness powerful interpersonal breakthroughs once folks experience the psychological safety to communicate with candor.

Normalizing apologies, not expertise

Many folks working for technology companies describe their working environments as low-trust. One of the simple reasons for this is because we’re really bad at making things better after we make a mistake. Apologizing. Acknowledging harm. Owning impact. Committing to doing better. How many of this have this in our peers and leaders?

At ReadySet, we spend a lot of time thinking about restorative justice, nonviolent communication, active listening. And at bottom, what we’re practicing is empathy. Not the unsatisfying, obligatory apologies mandated by more traditional HR teams after an incident gets reported, but rather a full-throated acknowledgement that the compassion we’d like to experience at our worst moments is the same thing we need to be prepared to extend to others.

Many folks come to the work of allyship preoccupied with a desire not to offend anyone and how not to make a mistake. We invite them to retire from this exhausting orientation and to instead 1) embrace the reality that we will all make mistakes, 2) develop the tools and language to acknowledge when they’ve caused harm, and 3) gracefully allow the conversation (or training or meeting or interaction) to resume.

Seeing ourselves in context

Given the way society is organized, it’s easy to have a distorted view of where we sit and what to draw from this insight. It’s also not obvious how power dynamics change depending on the day or the place or the function we’re serving at a particular time. Social Location is a term used to consider the aspects of our identity that inform who we are—race, ethnicity, gender, ability, education, social class, attitudes, interests, passions, and so forth—and the way that power, privilege, social roles, and other factors are predicated on these realities.

In our workshops, we spend time mapping our social location and observing how our identities overlap and shift and impact others (even and especially in the room). Armed with this insight, we’re able to develop awareness and dexterity to navigate our complex social reality that better reflects our needs and the needs of others at any given moment.

Bonus: moving from identity to action

In our Advanced Ally Skills Workshop, we spend time thinking about what it mean to go from being an ally to becoming an accomplice.

Here’s one way of looking at it:

Credit: Kim Tran, Ph.D

Credit: Kim Tran, Ph.D

When we make meaning out of our identity as an allies, we can fall victim to making the work about us. And when we’re confronted with situations that threaten how we see ourselves, we rush to preserve our ego rather than, for example, centering the impacted community or communities that we care about. In the process, we often make the situation worse.

The internal work around moving from an ally to an accomplice requires introspection, time, and sitting with some potentially uncomfortable truths. And we don’t often have the time or tools to consistently get better at this. But it’s at the core of the self-improvement required to take the work of DEI from theory to action.

Willie Jackson