In a recent a-ha moment, I realized I’d been teaching unconscious bias training long before I even know the term “unconscious bias.”
For years, I trained folks on “avoiding assumptions.”
Let me back up. Way back.
Back in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, I was planning events for non-profit organizations. As I stood on the courthouse steps the day the decision was announced, I decided to use my planning skills to support the many couples who were now, legally, able to wed. My vision was to help couples feel safe and free from discrimination as they navigated a heavily heteronormative (bride- and groom- centric), traditional industry.
Throughout my time as a wedding planner, I worked with amazing couples, planned hundreds of weddings, and truly knew I was making a difference in the lives of my clients. As time went on (and social media was invented), I began hearing from wedding planners, caterers, hotels, and other event professionals because they were confused and needed guidance. They were making some big mistakes when it came to LGBTQ weddings and they didn’t even realize it. They all asked me a version of the same question: “what’s the difference between a gay and straight wedding?”
Is a wedding just a wedding? Well, yes - - and no. Turns out there are lots of differences in the course of planning.
I seized the opportunity to have a much bigger impact on the weddings and event industry -- far beyond my impact on the couples who hired me to plan their wedding. I realized I could support LGBTQ couples around the world and help them feel safer and joyful in their wedding planning experience. I developed a training, consulted with businesses, and began speaking at conferences.
Back in those days, unbeknownst to me, I talked a lot about unconscious bias. It was the crux of my training. Except I never used that phrase. I’d never even heard of that phrase. What I said was: don’t assume.
Don’t assume that there’s one bride and one groom and automatically ask a bride, “what’s the name of the groom?”
Don’t assume that there will be a “bridal” party – especially with two grooms.
Don’t assume that the couple will follow wedding traditions, such as a father-daughter dance.
In general, stop assuming anything!
For years, I’d been using inclusion nudges and role playing, videos, data, systemic changes and more to reinforce the key message of “don’t assume.” And it worked. We began beating the unconscious bias that is built into the wedding industry and saw real change. Today 90% of U.S. wedding professionals are willing to serve LGBTQ couples and many of them are conscious of the language on their websites, intake forms and within all of their communications.
(reducing micro-aggressions….well, that’s another story…)
More recently, as my career evolved beyond the wedding industry, and as I’ve facilitated “unconscious bias training” for organizations, I’ve found greater buy-in by re-framing “unconscious bias” as just one more type of an assumption.
Because it feels bad to think that our unconscious causes us to have bias towards others. One key message of unconscious bias training is that we all do it. We all have bias.
While that’s true, very few people want to be told they have bias. Even when they’re told that everybody has bias.
But when we say, “We all make assumptions”, it goes down a little easier. We share small assumptions that we’ve made about others, and then share small assumptions others have made about us. I talk about the time my gaydar was off. Way off. Whoops.
Yeah, gaydar is based in all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes.
These are mostly harmless stories, often embarrassing. There is laughter in the stories. We loosen up. We open up.
Then the stories get a little bit bigger, a bit more uncomfortable. The time someone assumed that I’m the “boy” in my lesbian relationship. That time the Starbucks manager assumed two black men waiting in the store were up to no good, then called the cops.
Suddenly, there’s sharing in the room. There’s empathy in the room. There are some somber nods. Everyone is listening.
Then the stories turn to work and we dig in deeper on the causes and effects of these assumptions. And by the way, we also address solutions!
This re-framing of unconscious bias as just another type of an assumption is powerful and relatable.
When we strip away the negativity of the term unconscious bias, people open up. They start to see all the assumptions we make every day. Many of those assumptions are incredibly helpful and timesaving. But some of them put others in a box and hold them back. Using the term “unconscious bias” shuts the door for many people before they even see what’s in the room. And we want them to see what’s in the room!
Most of the time assumptions are accidental, little habits our personal experiences have ingrained into our minds and way of being. The truth of the matter is, we all make assumptions. We all have bias. But that doesn’t make it ok. We still need to do the work to change these biases and when we re-frame the conversation, we get more traction toward real change.
And I think we can all admit we want real change.