Reduce Bias and Foster Greater Inclusion
This year’s events have brought the topic of healing unconscious bias back to the forefront of our minds. Especially in the healthcare setting, many are questioning their role in addressing these deep-seated biases.
We want to know that we are treating everyone with the same amount of compassion – regardless of their race, culture, nationality, religion, age, or gender. Yet if we really examine our own thoughts and beliefs honestly, we may sometimes notice hints of judgements and negative biases just below the surface of our conscious mind. These can affect the quality of our interactions with patients, coworkers, and strangers.
Delivering excellent and compassionate care can transform healthcare for the better, but first we have to do our part in eliminating bias – on an individual level and across organizations. While workplace diversity and training programs can be helpful, they often focus on the symptoms of bias without addressing the root cause: humanity’s unconscious beliefs often going back thousands of years.
At the bottom of our bias are sets of long-standing cultural beliefs that drive us to notice our differences more than our common human similarities. By becoming more skillful listeners, we can uproot these beliefs and genuinely respond to others from a level of our deeper human connection – thus helping them feel heard and cared for.
THE BIOLOGY BEHIND OUR UNCONSCIOUS BIAS
Understanding the biological basis of our bias is the first step in learning how to overcome it for good. According to neuroscientist Lynda Shaw, we unconsciously characterize a newly encountered person as a friend or foe even before we get the chance to get to know them – because of the brain’s mental shortcuts. 
Our brain automatically divides people into two categories: those who are similar to us and those who are different. It sees those who are different as a potential threat. This probably goes back to the prehistoric days when “other” tribes posed a threat to our survival – or so people thought – because they might get to the limited supplies of the day’s food faster than us.
Although we no longer have to worry about fighting “other tribes” for food or shelter, our brains have been conditioned to think in these ways over time. When we encounter those who fall in the “different” category, some level of the fight-or-flight response often comes up automatically.
As a result of the brain’s fear response, we unconsciously start getting defensive. We close down and are more likely to try to cling to our own preconceived beliefs and ideas in order to “protect” ourselves – even though there is no real threat present.
MINDFULNESS AS A TOOL TO OVERRIDE BIAS
While our conscious intention might be to be there for another – to listen fully and become a source of healing or inspiration – our brain is still sorting out these unconscious beliefs. Dismantling them takes time. This is also the reason that diversity training programs often don’t bring long-term results. They don’t teach us to override those mental shortcuts that place others in the “different” category.
By training our brain to expand its definition of those who are “like me” to all of humanity – regardless of skin color, age, gender or nationality – we come one step closer to meeting others from a more equal and compassionate space. Mindfulness and learning the art of active listening are the best tools to help us do this on a consistent basis.
Mindfulness helps us notice these unconscious patterns within our minds as they arise. As we pause and reflect on our own thoughts and beliefs, we realize how much they are affecting our day-to-day behaviors, including our ability to listen to others. By practicing bringing our attention back to the present moment, we learn to open our hearts and minds so that we can truly be there without letting the brain’s fear response affect us.
OPENING OUR HEARTS BY EXPANDING OUR PERSPECTIVES
The more we intentionally listen to different perspectives on life, the easier it becomes to accept thoughts and ideas that differ from our own. This is how we train ourselves to be more tolerant – and thus how we create a more tolerant society.
If you’ve ever traveled to another country, you may have noticed that even though you weren’t able to understand what another person was saying verbally, you were probably able to communicate with them nonverbally. You met them at a deeper level – you had to leave your bias and personal worries behind so you could attend to what they were trying to communicate. You had no choice but to slow down and become more present.
When you interact with those who don’t speak your language, your brain is forced to focus on their nonverbal behavior. One way to boost your active listening skills is to extend this focus to conversations with those whom you CAN understand verbally but who have a different outlook on life.
You don’t have to travel to another country to learn to do this. The easiest place to start is seeking out others in your community or organization who have been brought up in different cultures or nationalities. Mingle with them, make friends with them, listen to their story – and notice how similar it is to your own.
LISTENING FOR OUR COMMON HUMANITY
Learning the skill of active listening helps our brains see that we are all much more similar than we are different. The way we interact with each other is often based on the roles that we are playing such as: employee/employer, customer/business owner, parent/child, teacher/student etc. Listening from an open heart allows us to go beyond these roles into a space where we are simply human.
Every time we interact with another from that place of our common humanity, we can’t help but feel more compassion. When we feel compassion for another, they can sense that we genuinely care about what they have to say – and who they are. Every interaction becomes more meaningful and fulfilling. Others around us who notice this may start learning from our example.
Working in healthcare, you are probably already aware that we all experience pain and suffering – regardless of our background. Yet sometimes in the midst of the day’s tasks it’s easy to forget this. Slowing down to notice that others have the same basic needs for safety, comfort, and belonging can help you get back in touch with the reason you started working in this field to begin with. This can help ground you in the moment so you can listen more intentionally and be of most service.
So what are some ways to become a better listener so that you can continue dismantling bias and improving relationships within your organization – and in your personal life?
3 STEPS TO LISTENING MORE DELIBERATELY
Before the conversation:
- Pause and check in with your body – recognize what’s going on inside of you before engaging in a conversation. Are you feeling stressed, busy or overwhelmed? If so, take a few deep breaths and gently calm your fears.
- Notice your own assumptions, expectations, judgements – Do you have a certain agenda in mind? If so, can you suspend it for a moment? Are there certain topics you’re trying to avoid or points of view you may be unconsciously clinging to? Notice any inclinations to start thinking about the next thing you have to do. When you notice these things, be gentle with yourself. Try to remember that it’s ok to not have an immediate response to what another is saying.
During the conversation:
- Pay attention to the emotions beyond the words – What are the underlying needs beyond the other person’s words? If they’re angry or frustrated for example, can you feel the underlying fear – perhaps a fear of not being acknowledged or appreciated?
What Neuroscience can Teach Us About Diversity and Unconscious Bias, John Rossheim, August 2019 https://www.workhuman.com/resources/globoforce-blog/what-neuroscience-can-teach-us-about-diversity-and-unconscious-bias
Karen Laing is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher with experience in trauma and caregiving. She's spent the last 25 years supporting families through major life transitions such as birth and postpartum care.
She founded Birthways over 20 years ago to support expectant families and provide training and support for birthworkers. She created WisdomWay as a means to continue supporting all caregivers with mindfulness-based training and certifications. She speaks nationwide on mindfulness, parenting, caregiving, and mental health.