Commentary: The value of being heard: Listening can be key to diversity

Celebrate Diversity Month is an opportunity to reflect on gains — and what still needs to be done.

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  • | 5:10 a.m. April 15, 2019
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By Mike Freed, Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart shareholder

Since April is national Celebrate Diversity Month, it is the season to celebrate diversity – a worthy aspiration indeed.

 Unfortunately, once a cause rises to the level of having its own month, it risks having its significance lost in the notoriety.

Celebrations themselves can be so festive and joy-focused that participants may fail to give proper tribute to the cost to achieve that being celebrated.

And that can distract from the work that remains to be done.

With that in mind, let me offer context and highlight some work that remains:

Diversification of a group can be a step in a positive direction. But by itself, it accomplishes little.

In fact, merely diversifying a body can be detrimental if it causes only tokenization or minimization or if leads an organization to the false conclusion that it has resolved systemic racism, sexism or ethnocentrism.

It is only when an organization embraces an inclusive culture that true and sustainable gains are made. This happens when people with divergent qualities and experiences not only are recruited, but actively engaged, valued and heard.

As attorneys, we know well the value of being heard. We love to be heard, we are paid for it, we crave it and we demand it.

This is particularly so for those who are in charge. It is no coincidence that we equip our judges with wooden hammers to bang if they are not being heard.

But what about those who are hammerless?

The lawyer’s paradox, regrettably, is that we seek first to be understood rather than to understand. We talk before we listen. Indeed, sometimes we do not listen at all.

This paradox often leads us to overlook and ignore the very people we invite into the room under the auspices of diversity. It can stifle and frustrate the invitee, and it deprives the organization of a full perspective of views and opinions.

So, in this season in which we celebrate diversity, I propose that we commit to unwinding the paradox – to seek first to understand rather than to be understood. It is only when we do so that we begin to include instead of simply diversifying.

Listen. It’s the sound of diversity.

Mike Freed is a board-certified business litigator in Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart’s Jacksonville office. He is a speaker on myriad topics and has appeared on national radio and television programs including The Today Show, 20/20, Good Morning America and National Public Radio.