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This is part 3 of a three-part segment on unconscious bias and its impact. Read Part 1 and Part 2 for more information on this important topic.

Navigating our biases

In my practice as an Integral Coach and psychotherapist, I have helped many navigate their unconscious biases. Though that wasn’t what brought them to me, it was by looking at their biases that brought more clarity to their situation. A bias could be anything from a bias for dogs instead of cats, to a bias towards male leaders instead of female ones.

I like to think of unconscious bias being the muck on a window that is obscuring visibility. That muck could be from:

  • a direct childhood experience (e.g. you got bit by a dog when you were five and since then are biased against all dogs)
  • your family (e.g. you were brought up in a family that was stoic with their emotions such that you are biased against loud, demonstrative people)
  • the culture you grew up in (e.g. the television ads showed women in domestic roles such that you are biased against women in non-domestic roles).

I like to think of unconscious bias being the muck on a window that is obscuring visibility.

Intuition isn’t always reliable

These biases can live below conscious awareness because they formed at such an impressionable age. Even though as an adult you may believe that women can do more than just domestic roles, when placed in front of a male and female applicant for a leadership position, your intuitive gut response may be influenced by your unconscious bias formed when you were young.

Connson Chou Locke, Ph.D. writes in her HBR article, “Intuition is essentially a feeling, and we do not know the source of that feeling. It may be that our aversion to a particular option is reflecting a hidden nervousness, insecurity or fear of the unknown. If so, then our intuition will lead us to reject a perfectly good option.”

“Intuition is essentially a feeling, and we do not know the source of that feeling. It may be that our aversion to a particular option is reflecting a hidden nervousness, insecurity or fear of the unknown. If so, then our intuition will lead us to reject a perfectly good option.”

5 steps

I have found these 5 steps necessary to navigating our unconscious biases:

  1. Accept that you are biased
  2. Practice self-awareness and self-observation
  3. Develop comfort with discomfort
  4. Practice self-compassion
  5. Rinse, repeat

1. Accept that you are biased

Many people don’t realize they are biased. By accepting that you are biased, you can then become curious about the ways in which you are and do something about it—clear some of the muck from the window so you can see more clearly. For more on this read the first part of this series: Part 1: Diversity and Unconscious Bias. Also, familiarizing yourself with common cultural stereotypes is a great way to start this exploration. See part two of the series Part 2: How Unconscious Bias Manifests.

2. Practice self-awareness and self-observation

In order for change to happen we need to be able to see what it is we’re doing. I teach my clients a form of mindful attention. During our sessions we practice slowing things down such that they can notice the emotions and thoughts that are present. With this awareness they can observe themselves in conversation with others and reflect in the moment how things are going. Then, with practice they can also get to a point where they can self-correct in the moment.

Journal Practice
Journal at three points in the day (e.g. noon, after work, before bed) and answer the following questions:

  1. What judgments did I make verbally or non-verbally today?
  2. What thoughts, feelings, or body sensations were present?
  3. What events, circumstances, or people were associated with these judgments?
  4. What are these judgments based on?
  5. What will I do with what I observed?

To more fully develop the ability for mindful attention I recommend the practice of mindfulness meditation—also known as Vipassana (Insight) Meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that has been shown to help with self-awareness along with a whole slew of other positive traits.

It is through this practice that our unconscious biases can become more conscious. When they are more conscious, we can work with changing them.

3. Develop comfort with discomfort

Looking at our own biases is emotionally challenging work. Strong feelings of shame and guilt can arise and we may get discouraged. In order to develop comfort with discomfort we need to learn to self-regulate when we feel overwhelmed by these strong feelings. I can’t emphasize enough that this is difficult work! AND, it’s humbling, rewarding, and very necessary for our identity-diverse world.

In order to develop comfort with discomfort we need to learn to self-regulate when we feel overwhelmed by these strong feelings.

A personal example
When I noticed myself nervously eyeing two black men standing near my parked bike in a predominately white neighborhood in San Francisco, I nearly collapsed in shame. I felt the negative cultural stereotype of “Black men are criminals” collide with my conscious belief that just because they are Black and male does not make them criminals. Sadness for these men who had to deal with similar looks every day was immediately replaced with anger that this is a reality in our culture. All this happened in a matter of seconds.

Before acting I took a few deep breaths (self-regulation!) as my heart was racing from my inner turmoil. I was able to share what I was going through with the person I was with and process through the messiness of shame and cultural racism. Once calmer I could see the men more clearly as a father and teenage son collecting their bikes that were parked next to mine. When we are activated (i.e. emotionally triggered) the world looks very black and white and we lose the grey. As we calm down the nuances appear and we can see more clearly.

Despite my conscious beliefs, I have been affected by my culture and environment. By understanding how I have absorbed cultural racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, I can better see people (and myself) beyond the stereotypes given by our culture. With this understanding can bring feelings of shame. Who wants to be racist or sexist!? This is an important distinction: Though we may not want to be racist or sexist, we will still do or say racist or sexist things.

This is an important distinction: Though we may not want to be racist or sexist, we will still do or say racist or sexist things.

Brené Brown, a scholar, author and researcher on vulnerability and shame, said in her TED talk “Listening to Shame“, “you can’t talk about race without talking about privilege, and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”

Brené Brown: “you can’t talk about race without talking about privilege, and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”

This is where practices from step 2 come into place. Mindfulness helps with emotional regulation so that we can be present to these intense emotions. Many of my clients have said they could not have done the transformational work they did without their sitting practice.

Mindfulness helps with emotional regulation so that we can be present to these intense emotions.

Self-Regulating Breathing Practice
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating our bodies. It is comprised of two parts: sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Our in-breath activates the sympathetic nervous system which is part of our fight or flight response (think of you’re breathing when you’re stressed out—mostly in breaths) and our out-breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is part our calming response.

By simply extending the out breath longer than the in breath you activate the parasympathetic system.

  • Breath in for 4 counts and out for 6 counts
  • Breath in for 6 counts and out for 8 counts

4. Practice self-compassion

Looking at our biases is messy work. As we are bombarded with intense emotions our inner critics can appear and start reprimanding us for doing something wrong or for being a bad person. It is essential to practice kindness to oneself during these emotionally crippling moments.

Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, has a mantra for these challenging times: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”

5. Rinse, repeat

Navigating our biases is an on-going process. Though some of our unconscious biases may become conscious, we may still struggle with them coloring what we see. Remember, this work is more about learning to recognize our biases, recover, and then repair the relationship if needed. Less about getting rid of them.

Next Steps

You might be asking yourself, what about when other people are being biased towards us? How do we talk to them about what they said or did? That is another important and complex topic to be addressed in a future blog post.

Interested in learning more? Contact me and let’s chat.

Angella

Author Angella

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