Career & Success

Words Matter: How to Make Your Communication Inclusive

In this episode, we discuss how subtle word choice can invite inclusion, or can reinforce harmful stereotypes.

October 09, 2020

What ways can the language we use reinforce existing stereotypes and biases?

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Sarah Soule, Senior Associate Dean and Professor of Organizational Behavior sits down with lecturer and host Matt Abrahams to discuss how the details of our word choice can shape culture, for better or worse.


Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.


Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Regardless of if you’re speaking in a classroom or a board room, if you’re pitching or presenting, each of us has important stories to tell, input to give and messages to share. Without communication from multiple perspectives, we miss out on valuable, needed ideas and insight. On this episode, I am so excited to discuss how we can all encourage, support and reinforce diverse, equitable communication.

I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. Today I am thrilled to be joined by Sarah Soule, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the GSB.

Sarah’s research focuses on organizational theory, social movements and political sociology. She is a thought leader and driver for diversity, equity and inclusion work at Stanford and beyond. I have had the pleasure of working with Sarah on several different projects, and I have seen firsthand her passionate, collaborative and creative approach to teaching and managing. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah Soule: Thank you, Matt, and thanks for having me to be part of the podcast.

Matt Abrahams: It’s great to have you here, and I have so many different topics I want to discuss with you. I can’t wait to get started. Shall we?

Sarah Soule: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: Great.

Sarah Soule: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: Now, many of us listening work in organizations that are in various stages of implementing DEI programs. Based on your experience, what ideas can you share about how best to implement, assess and reinforce those DEI programs?

Sarah Soule: That’s a great question. So here at the GSB, we developed and follow what we call a “small wins” approach, and this basically involves empowering people in the organization to develop and pilot innovations in the DE&I space, and then to figure out good ways, solid ways to test how they’re working and to measure their impact, but then, importantly, to tell the story about how they have worked so that any of these that have been successful can be shared widely and diffused within the organization but also to other organizations. And so we base this approach on an article I wrote a couple of years ago for the Harvard Business Review on how to do organizational cultural change.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Soule: And we also base this in some work that my colleague, Professor Shelley Correll, has done that’s been more specifically about organizational change around diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. So we found that this approach worked really well here at the GSB. One of the things that we continue to work on and iterate is what you’ve asked about assessing these programs: coming up with new ways to measure outcomes – new and clever ways to measure outcomes because that, of course, is incredibly important to the DE&I agenda.

Matt Abrahams: You have been involved in a case-writing project that has identified biases in cases used in business-school classes. What did you uncover? And what does your work imply for language use in our everyday business communication?

Sarah Soule: And so what we know as faculty of business school and students in business school: We’ve long known that there are many, many fewer case studies written on women and underrepresented-minority leaders. In fact, the dearth of such cases has been documented over the years in many articles and in various venues, including the Harvard Business Review. And some of us have actively tried to rectify this in our own case-writing activities. But that said, it has always bothered me personally that some of the women and underrepresented-minority protagonists in cases are described in stereotypical ways.

Matt Abrahams: Mm.

Sarah Soule: So for example, women leaders are often described in these case studies as nurturing to their employees while their male counterparts are described in more agentic terms and lauded for their vision. So this always led me to wonder: What kind of signals are being sent to our students about what leadership is and how leadership matters across genders and across race and ethnic categories?

So what we wanted to think about was: What way does language use in these case studies reinforce any kinds of existing stereotypes and biases? And so that was really the impetus for the case-study project, which involved reading each case that’s used in our core and elective classes and looking carefully at the descriptions of the protagonists in each case. And when we found stereotypical language, we notified the faculty member using the case study and we’ve offered to help rewrite the case study if it’s one that the Stanford Graduate School of Business owns.

Now, in cases which we can’t rewrite because they are cases written by other case-writing entities, we offer support to the faculty member on how to teach about ways in which unconscious biases might be reinforced through language. So in other words, what we do is we offer to help faculty create teachable moments around bias as part of whatever their lesson plan is for that day with that particular case study.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. It’s amazing how insidious some of these things are, and this work that you’ve done has really helped to uncover it. I can imagine a business leader or a manager reflecting on his or her use of language, maybe in the way they introduce some of their colleagues or the way they structure their job descriptions. They, too, could benefit from really doing the kind of thorough work that you did. Do you have any advice or guidance to somebody in that position about what they could do to try to mitigate some of the things you uncovered in business cases?

Sarah Soule: Oh, absolutely. And a lot of this comes out in various kinds of communications, like written performance evaluations –

Matt Abrahams: Mm. Sure.

Sarah Soule: – or even in speeches and all-hands meetings and so on. And so what I always sort of suggest is that people – once they’ve written out whatever their communication is going to be, is pause, go back and look at it, and do so with a DE&I lens. Look at it and ask yourself: Are you giving feedback to your women employees that is different in tone? Are you using different kinds of ways to describe them than you might for a similarly ranked man in the organization? So that’s one example: in performance evaluations.

But in terms of communications such as those that we might hear at an all-hands meeting, I suggest that leaders have somebody look at their communication plan. Look at the speech and make sure that there isn’t any language in there that might reinforce biases inadvertently.

Matt Abrahams: That’s really good advice. And Sarah, I don’t know if you remember this interaction you and I had when we were working on a project together. I had put together a proposed agenda and project plan, and I sent it to you and I said, “Here’s a straw man for what I think we could do,” and being totally unaware of the gendered term that I was using. You very kindly, very politely pointed out to me that that term could have some implications, and I have been very cognizant using that term and others. So I thank you for highlighting that, and I think that’s a great example of how just pointing out to people and really taking time to reflect on language that we might not think as gendered – that can, actually, have some implications. So a belated thank you for the education you gave me there.

Sarah Soule: Oh. Well, you’re very welcome.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. Now, you also had mentioned earlier this notion of micro aggression. So I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about what micro aggressions are, since you co-authored a paper on that topic. And can you share with us the model that you helped develop to address the problem?

Sarah Soule: Oh, absolutely. So when we think about micro aggressions and try to define what this term means, we sort of define a micro aggression as a commonplace/daily verbal or behavioral incident, whether intentional or unintentional, that somehow communicates hostile, derogatory or negative information to a woman or an underrepresented minority. And I think the key to understanding these is to realize that they’re incredibly commonplace, often completely unintentional; but the cumulative impact or effect that they can have on an individual is where the problem really lies. And again, it’s because they’re so commonplace.

And so in the article to which you’re referring, we suggest a three-part framework for how to become better at recognizing and responding to micro aggressions. And we call this the Anticipate, Acknowledge, and Act Authentically Framework. And so we suggest first that all of us must become better at anticipating when and where a micro aggression may happen. And this involves being aware of what’s happening in the broader local, national, international context, and increasing one’s learning about other groups, and learning about what kinds of comments and behaviors may inadvertently offend somebody. I guess in many ways anticipation is about prevention.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Soule: Second, we discuss the importance of acknowledging when a micro aggression happens. Perhaps we notice when someone has made a remark that might reasonably be considered to be a micro aggression; but rather than doing something about it, we look the other way to avoid the discomfort. So we argue in the article that stepping up and acknowledging the presence of micro aggressions, and working on ways to intervene, are really a collective responsibility in an organization or at a college or university.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Soule: And then finally, we provide some ideas in the article about how to act authentically in the moment, when we’re either on the receiving end of a micro aggression or if we witness one. And the idea here is really that everybody needs to figure out a response that feels right for their own style, personality, and way of expressing themselves. And so in the article we give some examples, and we suggest that people try on these different ways of intervening and see which one feels right for them, and recognize that this is a process and a practice and that we get better at it with more practice.

Matt Abrahams: That model is very easy to understand. I personally like it because they all start with the letter “A.” I’m a big fan of alliteration. And I like that it really is putting the responsibility on the organization and the individuals involved to really step up to address this. Could you give us an example that you talked about in the article regarding what people can say when confronted with a micro aggression? You said there are many, and everybody has to find what fits theirs. I’d love to hear a specific example.

Sarah Soule: Sure. Sure. I’ll give one that I have found seems to work for me, and that is simply asking a follow-up question – a curious sort of follow-up question about what was said either to me or said to a colleague or a friend, and asking somebody, “Could you say a little bit more about what you meant by that? I’m not sure I understood what you meant,” or, “where you’re coming from” because often, in my experience, that allows the person who has probably unintentionally or inadvertently said something that could be offensive to somebody to understand themselves, to get to that point themselves, rather than having me point out why it might have been offensive.

So that one works for me. Other people talk about just simply saying: “May I give you some feedback right now about what you just said?” Now, that one, for me, feels a little less comfortable than the first one that I mentioned. So that’s what I mean: Trying these out, seeing which ones seem to work best for your own style, is what we really suggest in that article.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for those specific examples. Each is different in terms of its directness and tone, but absolutely I can see some people who would gravitate towards one versus the other. So thank you for that.

Sarah Soule: Yes, you’re welcome.

Matt Abrahams: Another area of your research – and you do so many different things – has focused on protests and social movements. I have to ask: What are your thoughts on the various protests that we’ve seen over the last several months?

Sarah Soule: Oh, it’s such a good question. I have a lot of thoughts on that, but I’m going to try to be …

Matt Abrahams: I’m sure.

Sarah Soule: I’m going to try to be concise. I’ve written a few various blog posts and so on on these.

Matt Abrahams: Sure.

Sarah Soule: But I’m going to be concise. And I’m going to say that now, in this moment, reflecting on the last several months, I’m finding great hope in this protest wave. And I think that my hope really lies in the awakening and reawakening in so many citizens of a curiosity to learn about race and racism, and to engage more deeply in allyship and anti-racism. And my research has also shown that protests can change public opinion and can also have profound effects on electoral outcomes. So I’m also optimistic that the outcomes of these protests may be a restoration of democracy in the United States and lead to a brighter future for all. And so that’s where I find hope in what’s been going on these last few months with the protest wave.

Matt Abrahams: I really hope your perspective is what turns out to be the case. It’s absolutely a critical moment in our history, and these protests have the potential, as you said, to have some really good, lasting effects. So thank you for that insight. Now, Sarah, I can’t end our conversation without celebrating your work-from-home creativity. You became a bit of an academic celebrity for your innovative use of your refrigerator. Can you share with us how you’ve used your kitchen appliances to help your students learn and, perhaps, share other tricks you’ve come up with to engage people while remotely communicating?

Sarah Soule: Yes, absolutely. That was such a funny picture, Matt. It was captured by my son, who was home from college, sheltering in place and distance-learning.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Sarah Soule: I was struggling one day, trying to figure out an effective digital whiteboard, when it suddenly occurred to me that our old-school fridge in the kitchen might do the trick. And so I tested out a little, tiny, tiny spot with a dry-erase marker on the refrigerator, and it worked like a charm. And just [in generally], I think we’re all getting better at engaging others in our new remote way of working. One of the insights that I have is that people are feeling cognitively overloaded right now.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Sarah Soule: So as educators, I think we have to find ways to reduce cognitive overload. So for example, I now offer my information in much smaller pieces interspersed with breakout groups or synchronous work and shared documents. That’s one of the tricks that I’ve been experimenting with. I’ve also been working to make my slides more visually appealing and much less cluttered, and this is where … I’ve had the opportunity to watch you teach frequently on slide design, and this has been very helpful to me.

Matt Abrahams: Oh. Well, thank you.

Sarah Soule: Yes. And so I’m also using music and video in my lectures now to offer some variation in sound and visuals. And then finally, because of my sense of humor, I’ve been known to show up using camera filters – add silly hats and accessories – just to bring a little bit of levity to my lectures and make people laugh.

Matt Abrahams: Okay, I’ve got to know: What’s your favorite filter so far?

Sarah Soule: There are some really great ones in Snap, and you can add … The one that I particularly like is putting a cat on my head.

Matt Abrahams: I can see that in my mind’s eye, for sure. So really, what it boils down to is respecting the fact that people have cognitive overload in this virtual world that we’re in and, really, trying to come up with a variety of different ways of communicating and allowing people to interact just to keep them engaged and to avoid that fatigue. And if you have to –

Sarah Soule: Yes.

Matt Abrahams: – use your refrigerator and toaster, it sounds like.

Sarah Soule: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: So before we end, Sarah, I’d like to ask you the same three questions that I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for answering these?

Sarah Soule: Absolutely, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Great. If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation-slide title, what would it be?

Sarah Soule: Are you ready for this, Matt?

Matt Abrahams: I’m ready.

Sarah Soule: “What? So what? Now what?”

Matt Abrahams: I’ve heard that before. Tell me why.

Sarah Soule: One of my dear friends, and a communication guru –

Matt Abrahams: Aah.

Sarah Soule: – you – have taught me this framework, and talked to me about how this could be used in a slide presentation. It could be used in a town-hall speech, and it could be used even in an email communication. And having communicated with you by email on many occasions –

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Sarah Soule: – I notice you do this, and I have been trying to bake this into all of my communications. What? So what? Now what?

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you for the plug, and I’m glad that that was advice that has been useful to you. It’s very useful to me, and others have said that that structure is helpful. So thank you. And a reminder to everybody: Structured messages are messages that are much more easily digested and received. So thank you. So let me ask you Question No. 2: Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Sarah Soule: Lin-Manuel Miranda. And this is because, through his words in Hamilton, he simultaneously ignited a desire to learn about the history of this country and he ignited a passion to fight for freedom and democracy. And importantly, he did so in such a clever, joyful and playful way. That’s why I admire him so much.

Matt Abrahams: He’s an amazing personality, and I just have to share a quick story. I heard an interview with him. In Hamilton, for all of those who’ve heard it, the rapping, the singing in some cases is so fast that he would actually have to think about the consonant blends, the certain letters, to allow somebody in their breathing to say these things so fast. As somebody who’s fascinated by communication, I was amazed to take it down not to the word but to the consonant to figure out how to say it the most effective way. He is truly a genius and an excellent communicator. I’m glad you picked him. Question No. 3: What are the three first ingredients that you would add to a successful communication recipe?

Sarah Soule: Yes. First, know your audience.

Matt Abrahams: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Soule: Second, keep it simple. And third, make them feel an emotion.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. So the first of yours we have talked about many times – about knowing your audience. Share with me about the “emotion” piece. That’s really powerful.

Sarah Soule: Yes. I take this from some of the things that my colleague, Professor Jennifer Aaker, has shared with me when she talks about the importance of story. She often tells a story about how she realized early on in her career, as an educator, as a professor, that her students didn’t really remember much of the content of what she taught them, but they remembered how they felt. And so I’ve been consciously trying to make sure that there’s some emotion baked into my communications.

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s so important. And in fact, Jennifer was on the podcast talking about her new research into humor, and we did touch on the notion of emotion in humor and storytelling. So that’s a great reminder. Thank you, Sarah. I knew this would be educational and entertaining. I also knew that you’d have tons of valuable thoughts and ideas on how we can work to ensure more voices are heard. Each of us has a critical role to play in fostering equity and inclusion in our workplaces and beyond. Oh, and by the way, I can’t wait to see how you use your microwave to expedite your students’ learning. Thanks so much.

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