Cracking the cocoon for DEI conversations

Jul 17, 2022

Many may find these discussions uncomfortable, but there are steps firms can take to make staff feel safe.

Conversations surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion often lay the foundation by emphasizing a “safe” space. When you read the word “safe,” what do you think? Typically, it means no harm. It is common for individuals to create cocoons around themselves for protection.

However, “safe” does not mean “comfortable.” In fact, most conversations that pave the way toward healing and building truly inclusive and equitable environments are far from comfortable. Just like the caterpillar growing wings and emerging as a butterfly – it takes time, energy, and support. It may be uncomfortable and even painful to crack through the cocoon that was protecting it, but eventually the butterfly emerges stronger than before.

How can we work together to help people have the kinds of conversations that may be uncomfortable, while maintaining a “safe” space:

  1. Lay ground rules ahead of time so people know what is expected of them when discussing DEI. These rules can be called “group agreements.” Everyone in the group will know that judgement is suspended, and everyone should keep an open mind.
  2. Create an atmosphere that promotes confidentiality. DEI conversations can often become personal, and people need to know that what they say will be kept only within the group. People will not be transparent and share their true feelings if they think it will be shared later with a wider audience. Build and keep the trust.
  3. Foster active listening. Say what? We’re all guilty of doing it – someone is talking and you’re thinking about your response, or what to eat for dinner, or the email you still need to send out. Be present. It’s important to put in a conscious effort to not only hear the words someone is speaking but the complete message that is being conveyed. Paying careful attention to the person speaking is paramount. It’s important to make sure you are not distracted by thoughts or paying attention to extraneous things going on around you. It’s also vital not to form counter arguments in your head or create a defense to what is being shared. Active listening is a skill that needs to be practiced.
  4. Use “I” statements when describing an issue surrounding DEI. Be sure to say how you feel using “I” statements instead of “You” statements. Starting the statement with “I” can reduce defensiveness whereas starting with “you” may unintentionally place blame on the other person. This will also help the recipient(s) hear what you are saying more openly and willingly. Try it out a few times – it’s also a useful tool to use in non-DEI related conversations.
  5. Assume best intent. When you have hard discussions around DEI, sometimes statements can appear to come from a place of bad intent. Please avoid this assumption. Set your default to assuming what is being discussed is through the very best intent by the person speaking. So, if someone accidentally says “You did…” try not to immediately jump to your defensive position.
  6. Lean into vulnerability. DEI discussions can often make you aware of things you didn’t notice before – and may uncover some sensitivities. If we build up defenses against our vulnerabilities by avoiding or minimizing those feelings, we’re not being honest with ourselves. If we expect others to be open with us, we must first be honest and open with ourselves. Lean into the discussions.

These discussions are hard, painful, and sometimes they don’t make sense. But they are important and they are necessary. They help to lay the groundwork for growth. Many people have built their own cocoons as a layer of protection, but it’s time we all work together to create an environment where we feel safe to break free. 

Carol Martsolf is a vice president and the chief learning officer at Urban Engineers. Contact her at

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