Improving inclusion at work—or anywhere—can feel like a daunting task. Many recommendations require company-level changes: changing hiring practices, reviewing compensation, unconscious bias training, and more. And those initiatives are extremely powerful. They help shift the innate power structures that prevent inclusivity and equality.
But improving inclusion doesn't have to be daunting. You as a team member can take steps to improve inclusion on your own.
The first and biggest thing you can do is to hold space for others. Hold space for them to be heard, to be themselves, to be sad, to be happy, to be lonely, to be frustrated, to just be.
The idea of creating and holding space isn’t a new one. It has a long history in therapy and coaching, but it can be easy to lose in the workplace. We’re often focused on the next task or project, and we forget that all the while people are feeling things.
Sometimes teammates are reacting to the world at large—news of racism, shootings, abortion bans, and more—and other times, they’re feeling left out, hurt, mistreated, or anxious because of workplace dynamics. By holding space for them, you can make it easier for them to feel those things, to express their emotions, and to ask and push for change.
Having an inclusive work environment doesn’t just mean that teammates feel comfortable being themselves: It also means they’re able to do their best work and your team is able to accomplish its goals.
Holding space for others can be difficult, particularly in a group setting, but here are a few tips that I’ve used with my team and learned from other leaders, therapists, and coaches.
1. Talk about how you’re doing.
It seems counter-intuitive to hold space for others by talking about yourself. But talking about emotions or not-so-great things can feel daunting anywhere and especially at work. If you can start to share when you’re having a hard time or when you get frustrated, your team will see this and learn that it’s okay to talk about these types of things.
You can normalize that type of sharing for others who may not have as much authority, privilege, or status in the workplace.
2. Take time to listen, and ask how others are doing.
During your next 1:1 or over coffee, ask your teammate how they’re doing.
Listen closely, and where you feel comfortable, ask follow-up questions. How is the project they’re working on going? What’s it like to work with that other person? What did they do over the weekend? Was their weekend tiring, energizing, relaxing?
Because you’ve been role modeling sharing real things, you may be surprised by the depth of the answers you get.
As you build trust within the group, you can do this in meetings and group settings as well. Consider adding a check-in round to your next meeting.
3. Create safety through empathy and integrity.
As you have these conversations, someone may share something with you that is private, vulnerable, or even contentious. Often moments of feeling excluded or mistreated can be viewed through many lenses, some of them unfavorable.
The most important thing you can do is to listen without judgement, express empathy, and engage with what the other person is sharing. You may not always be able to help—if it’s something personal or relates to something at work that you have no agency over, but you can always provide support to the person for thinking through what to do or how to support themselves.
And if an inclusion topic is raised about the way a teammate or even yourself has acted, keep an open mind and ask questions. Brainstorm and be an ally in figuring out what to do and starting a conversation.
Be careful to not break someone’s confidence by sharing their experience without permission or committing to drive change when you are unable to do so.
It’s not about having the answer: it’s about holding space for the other person to share what’s wrong and to work together to find a solution.
Learning to hold space can be a powerful tool at work—and at home—for starting open conversations and improving inclusion on your team. And the best part is you can get started today. If you’re a leader who wants to drive broader inclusion efforts, check out the recommendations from Project Include.