Blog Post

Say the Right Thing: A Guide to Productive Conversations with Kenji Yoshino

By Stefani Murray
April 28, 2023

As champions of corporate DEI progress, Seramount experts are committed to supporting organizations’ Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) in their roles and with their DEI strategies. To do this, one solution we offer is the CDO Collaborative. The CDO Collaborative is a community of committed and progressive DEI professionals dedicated to creating authentic and sustained engagement with DEI among the executive leadership team and across their organizations. To support CDOs in this mission, we offer three broad pillars of service, including unique convenings, strategic support, and tactical guidance. All three pillars focus on helping CDOs to shift the narrative on DEI ownership and drive broader accountability for both action and results.

Our CDO Collaborative member webinars, called Fireside Chats, are hosted by Seramount’s President, Subha Barry, and feature one-on-one, thought-provoking conversations with a prominent industry leader or subject-matter expert. In April, Subha hosted Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the Director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. He is also the author of four books with topics about social justice, civil rights, and diversity. This conversation was centered around his newest book co-authored with David Glasgow, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, which was provided to our CDO Collaborative members in preparation for this webinar. The book is about identity conversations and how the dominant side tends to take over.

Yoshino started the conversation with the broad definition of an ally as someone who leverages their advantages and supports others who don’t have those advantages. Anyone can be an ally because we all have different advantages and disadvantages in society. He wanted to focus here because other books “over index on asking the more subordinated side of the conversation to do the work of making sure the conversation goes smoothly.” Kenji also mentioned the “democratization of discomfort,” which is the sharing of the discomfort that surrounds conversations about diversity and social justice instead of placing the burden solely on those who feel marginalized. With this baseline understanding in place, the conversation began.

An Insightful, Interactive Conversation

To make this webinar more personal, Kenji decided to have the audience participate and comment on the topics in his book that they wanted to discuss. He encouraged attendees to be on camera and come off mute to ask questions. After a brief introduction from Subha, Kenji began by asking attendees to choose which chapter to discuss first. The first chapter chosen was Chapter 4: Disagree Respectfully. Kenji stated that all conversations fall on a scale of controversy from least (conversations about food) to most (conversations about race and human rights) controversial. Most controversial conversations go awry because of misunderstanding, misaligned intensity, and not hearing what the other person is trying to convey. Conversations must be psychologically safe for disagreement to occur and to be productive. There are four steps to disagreeing:

  1. Locate the conversation on the controversy scale.
  2. Find uncommon commonalities.
  3. Show your work on remaining disagreements.
  4. Manage your expectations.

Subha then wanted to focus on the second point, finding the uncommon commonalities. She mentioned that the findings around this topic helped guide Seramount’s research on the challenge of having more diversity in senior leadership roles, and one of the key solutions was using the science of expanding social networks.

The next two chapters chosen were Chapter 1: Beware the Four Conversational Traps and Chapter 3: Cultivate Curiosity. The four conversational traps he mentioned are:

  1. Avoid
  2. Deflect
  3. Deny
  4. Attack

These four tactics are used to undermine the conversation that needs to occur and typically lead to some type of disagreement. Being mindful of how you speak to others can change the trajectory of a conversation. Kenji then moved on to chapter three. He mentioned that curiosity is a cardinal virtue, but we don’t typically have the proper tools to encourage it during conversations. Humans are naturally skeptical of the unknown; to learn, we have to be curious. There are three ways to recognize when you can nurture curiosity in a conversation:

  1. You don’t know something.
  2. You don’t know that you don’t know.
  3. You disbelieve people who do know.

Take stock of what you don’t know and what other people around you do. Put aside pride and be open to receiving new information.

Subha and Kenji ended the conversation by speaking about embedding DEI into every aspect of business. As CDOs, this is a topic that comes up often because they struggle with changing hearts, minds, and operating systems within organizations. This led Kenji to reference Chapter 7: The Empathy Triangle, which is made up of the source, an ally, and the affected person. Everyone cycles through the positions of this triangle depending on the situation they are in. Kenji mentioned that to create structural change within a company, CDOs should “change our habits, because habits are a form of structure at the individual level, right? But they can actually have a dramatic effect on an organization’s culture and therefore in an organization.” By thinking of problems through the empathy triangle lens, one can think of more empathetic solutions.

If reading about Kenji’s talk sparked your interest, you can hear more from him live at EmERGe on May 8-9. He will deliver a riveting keynote address to our audience on how each of us can play a role in the fight for equality and how we can continue to have dynamic conversations about Identity, Diversity, and Justice in this ever-evolving environment. You can register for the two-day event here.

If you would like to know more about the CDO Collaborative and how you can become a member, you can contact us.

About the Author

Headshot Stefani Murray
Stefani Murray
Marketing Specialist