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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

How to connect in identity conversations

Connecting Conversations 3 of 3
May 22, 2024

The last part of Charles Duhigg’s book Supercommunicators, after problem-solving conversations and emotion conversations, helps unpack what goes on in perhaps the most challenging and uncomfortable conversations of all – those that turn upon, or trigger, our identities.

As Duhigg reminds us:

All of us have a personal identity, how we think of ourselves apart from society. And all of us have a social identity, how we see ourselves – and believe others see us – as members of various tribes.

Our social identities are quite important to us. And while they can help us connect, social identities can also trigger and perpetuate stereotypes. For example, I’ve often heard that if someone from St. Louis, Missouri asks you what high school you went to, odds are they’re trying to identify your specific tribe (see what I did there … a St. Louis stereotype!).

The power of our social identities also depends upon our surroundings:

If I’m attending a neighborhood BBQ where everyone voted for Barack Obama, my pro-Obama T-shirt probably won’t spark strong feelings of kinship. But if I’m wearing that shirt to an NRA rally, and meet another person in the same shirt, we might feel a sense of comradery. The meaningfulness of various identities – the importance of gender versus race versus politics versus who we support in the Superbowl – becomes more or less salient based on our environment and what’s happening around us.

Identity can become powerful in negative ways when we feel threatened. Stereotype threats surface when we are aware of a negative stereotype about our own social identity, and our environment brings this awareness to the fore, regardless of others’ intent. Duhigg draws upon Claude Steele’s superb book Whistling Vivaldi, which explores the repercussions of stereotype or stigma threats. Many controlled experiments have shown that when persons are reminded of a negative stereotype about their gender or race before taking a test (such as the stereotype of women being less skilled at math than men), there’s a measurable drop in performance. “The existence of [the] stereotype generated just enough anxiety and distraction to slow them down, which translated into lower scores.”

Identity threats occur when we feel we are being negatively assigned to a group with which we don’t identity, or we are being denied membership in a group with which we do identify. The common denominator for identity threats is that the speaker is generalizing about groups of people (like I did above regarding folks from St. Louis), instead of treating individuals as individuals with their own lived experiences. Duhigg notes numerous studies demonstrating that “when people confront identity threats, their blood pressure can rise, their bodies can become flooded with stress hormones, [and] they begin looking for ways to escape or fight back.”

Interactions that surface stereotype threats or identity threats defeat efforts to connect, and they can truly be harmful. So how can we avoid or minimize such threats? Here’s how Duhigg’s summarizes his research and interviews with experts:

  • Draw out multiple identities: Duhigg reminds us that no one is one-dimensional, for “we all contain multitudes that are just waiting to be expressed.”
    • If we can find common identities across differences, it is easier to connect. For example, a doctor-patient interaction can bring with it the baggage and barriers of those respective identities, but the interaction changes if both are football fans, or have young kids, or are caring for aging parents, or have other similar roles in life.
    • Surfacing multiple identities can diminish the hobbling effect one experiences in the face of stereotype threats. In the test-taking studies mentioned above, the performance-inhibiting impact of negative stereotypes all but disappears when the test-takers are prompted to focus on their multiple identities beyond their stigmatized role. As one researcher put it to Duhigg, “[w]e can make the bad voices in our head less powerful by remembering all the other voices in there too.”
    • Drawing out multiple identities also helps avoid identity threats, which have a binary quality (in-group versus out-group, us versus them). The more we surface the complexity of our multiple roles and identities, the less likely we are to cause identity threats.
  • Ensure everyone is on an equal footing: Connecting across identities works best “when everyone has an equal voice and the ability to speak.” If we welcome each person’s perspectives and experiences, we can avoid ingrained identity power dynamics that impede connecting as equals. Duhigg adds that it is wise to frame interactions so that everyone is equally an expert on the topic at hand (we’re all “experts” in speaking about our own experiences) or equally a novice.
  • Acknowledge peoples’ experiences and look for genuine similarities: Here Duhigg draws upon the skills for effective communication in emotion conversations, such as asking deep questions, acknowledging shared experiences, and expressing empathy. He stresses that similarities must be genuine, building upon empathetic connection rather than self-centering oneself or one-upping the other person. And remember that identity threats can arise when we generalize about others, regardless of our intent. By focusing instead on individual experiences, we can steer clear of the sweeping generalizations that cause identity threats.
  • Manage your environment: As noted above, “[s]ocial identities gain and lose power based on their salience and the environment where a conversation occurs.” So, we can change the setting for conversations to defuse power dynamics and threats, helping ensure that all participants feel safe and welcome. Being called into your boss’s office feels completely different than meeting for coffee before work … especially if the employee picks their own, favorite coffee place!

Practicing Belonging:

It’s not surprising that identities are at play in conversations and interactions. But I’ll admit I winced several times while reading this part of Duhigg’s book. I’m confident that, without intending to, I’ve said or done things that have triggered identity threat in others. I know I have, and I regret that immensely.

And danger lurks in the lawyer’s toolbox. A key lawyering tool is the ability to look at a set of facts, abstract them to general principles, and then apply those principles to the next set of facts. This is an essential professional skill … but it’s the same process one harmfully uses to adopt stereotypes and then apply them to other people. Our tools have a specific, limited purpose, and we need to be mindful of when to use them, and when not.

One last thought. As a White male, and as someone reasonably educated and well-off, I’m rowing with the current of life, not against it. For just one example, my worry is that the police won’t arrive soon enough – not what happens to me after they arrive. You bet I’m aware of stereotypes for folks like me, but because of my privilege, advantages, or whatever word you prefer, I’m simply less likely to feel threatened by such stereotypes (with one notable exception – imply that someone like me is being “racist,” and then sit back and watch the identity threat fireworks go off).

As a result, it’s easy for someone like me to be blind to situations that trigger stereotype threats and identity threats in others, and to not appreciate the impact of such threats. Turns out that, in this instance, the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is simply not a useful guide for me. Better to focus on what’s been called the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them. And just how am I going to figure that out? I can start by getting better at practicing Belonging.