When it comes to having conversations about identity, diversity, and justice, there’s one thing everyone has in common — we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Fortunately, my guest on this episode, David Glasgow, can help with that. 

David is the executive director at the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at the NYU School of Law. He’s also the co-author of the new book “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice.” In our conversation, David and I explore why people fear having ‌tough conversations, the mistakes they commonly make and how we can recover from them. 

David and his co-author, Kenji Yoshino, wrote their book to help people overcome their fear of saying the wrong thing so they can show up as allies. 

Punk Rock HR is proudly underwritten by Betterworks. The world’s most dynamic organizations rely on Betterworks to accelerate growth by supporting transparent goal setting, enabling continuous performance and learning from employee insights. Betterworks is on a mission to help HR leaders make work better. Discover how they can help you by visiting www.betterworks.com.

Why People Fear Tough Conversations

Identity, diversity and justice are three topics increasingly discussed at work, in school and throughout our society. They’re harder to avoid or ignore than ever.

“In schools, universities, even as young as preschool now, some people are getting lessons on diversity and inclusion issues and getting exposed more and more to diversity issues,” David shares. 

Being exposed to these discussions is frightening to some people. They might worry about saying the wrong thing or getting caught up in “cancel culture.” Meanwhile, many people in younger generations want these conversations to happen — including at work.

“I think that the generational divide is creating challenges now, as well, because we have five generations all working together in the same workplaces for the first time,” David says. “So there’s a lot of friction.”

4 Common Mistakes People Make in Difficult Conversations

We all make mistakes. The key is whether we understand and learn from them. With difficult conversations, David lists four ways that people negatively react:

  • Avoid: This occurs when people move away from conversations, go silent, distract themselves with another activity or don’t share their input. 
  • Deflect: This occurs when people change the subject to avoid the topic at hand. They try to reframe the conversation as being about something else, like the speaker’s tone. 
  • Deny: This is when people put up walls, refusing to accept what’s being said or proposed.
  • Attack: This is when people make things personal. They use insults, sarcasm or other negative behaviors to shut down conversations.

Stopping yourself from making these mistakes starts by changing your mindset. In the book, David talks about fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. People with a fixed mindset often think of the worst possible outcome around conversations of identity. An alternative way to approach these conversations is with a growth mindset, where even mistakes are opportunities to learn. 

“Part of the reason why we devote a whole chapter to that topic is that we hope that readers will see themselves in those examples and identify areas where maybe they are prone to engaging in these mistakes,” David says.

How Corporate America Can Take Ownership

Mistakes around conversations of identity, diversity and justice in corporate America happen way too often. There’s a lack of vulnerability around these conversations, so when there’s a mistake, the resulting apologies don’t sound sincere. No one is taking ownership for what happened and how the mistake will be remedied.

A good apology contains the four R’s: recognition, responsibility, remorse and redress. David breaks down what each of the four R’s look like:

  • Recognition: This is when you recognize the harm done. Apologies often fall short of the recognition standard because they’re conditional. An example of this is, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
  • Responsibility: This represents accepting accountability for causing the harm. This means offering apologies without qualifications like “but.” An example of a qualified apology is, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it.”
  • Remorse: This requires expressing contrition for what’s happened, without distraction. An example of questionable remorse shared by David was an apology by celebrity chef Mario Batali issued an apology after sexual harassment claims were made against him — but the apology also advertised a recipe. 
  • Redress: This means backing up your apology with action. Sometimes, people want to issue an apology and move on without fixing the harm done. “It’s a commitment to engage in best efforts to not do that again, maybe even check in with the other person later,” David says.

Apologies are important for corporations as much as they are for people. Without good apologies, businesses can’t repair the harm they’ve done to customers or other stakeholders, and they might even make the problem worse. 

“The apology really begins the process of longer-term repair,” David says.

People in This Episode

David Glasgow: LinkedIn, Twitter, Meltzer Center


Laurie Ruettimann:

Punk Rock HR is sponsored by Betterworks. The world’s most dynamic organizations rely on Betterworks to accelerate growth by supporting transparent goal setting, enabling continuous performance and learning from employee insights. Betterworks is on a mission to help HR leaders make work better. Discover how they can help you by visiting betterworks.com today.

Hey everybody, I’m Laurie Ruettimann. Welcome back to Punk Rock HR. My guest today is David Glasgow. He’s the executive director at the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law. He’s also the co-author of the new book “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice.” And David is on the show doing that. 

Today we’re talking about identity, diversity, justice, and also how to make sure you come to these conversations in your workplace with the right attitude, the right spirit and how to recover when they don’t necessarily go the right way. So if you’re interested in learning about some of the most common mistakes that people make in conversations around identity and how to decenter yourself and actually approach this in the spirit of relationship and moving the world of work, and the world in general, forward, well, sit back and enjoy this conversation with David Glasgow on this week’s Punk Rock HR.

Hey David, welcome to the podcast.

David Glasgow:

Thank you so much for having me.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Sure, it’s my pleasure. Listen, I’m so excited to talk about who you are, what you’re all about and your new book. So why don’t you briefly introduce us to everything that is David Glasgow.

David Glasgow:

Sure. So my name’s David Glasgow. I’m originally from Australia and trained as a lawyer. And then I moved over into this field of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and now work with my co-author and colleague, Kenji Yoshino, at the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at NYU School of Law. And so we work with a lot of organizations and also with people within the law school on advancing inclusion and inclusive cultures, and that led us to write this new book, “Say the Right Thing.”

Laurie Ruettimann:

So tell us a little bit about your book. What’s it all about, who’s it for?

David Glasgow:

This book is really for anyone who’s terrified of saying the wrong thing in conversations about issues of identity and diversity. So if you think about really the full spectrum of conversations about race, gender, LGBTQ issues, disability, any of the identity issues that we’re all struggling with and grappling with right now, this book is for people who want to show up as good allies, want to participate in efforts to advance inclusion, but find themselves often withdrawing from those efforts because they fear getting it wrong. And we saw this happening so much in our work that we felt we needed to write a practical guide for people so that they could overcome their fears and learn how to say the right thing in these conversations

Laurie Ruettimann:

Why do you think we’re finding it harder and harder to have these conversations? Because the time is right to have these conversations. And yet, to your earlier point, there’s tension. People with good intentions are scared, and we actually need them leaning in now more than ever. So why is it so difficult?

David Glasgow:

I think there’s a few reasons. So one is that these conversations are just becoming a lot more ubiquitous everywhere you turn. So there’s no escape from them anymore. I think a lot of people felt, in the past, if you wanted to avoid having these conversations, you could. Whereas now in workplaces, people are talking much more about issues of bias and of diversity inside organizations. In schools, universities, even as young as preschool now, some people are getting lessons on diversity and inclusion issues and getting exposed more and more to diversity issues.

And then, of course, in the media, you can’t really open a homepage of a newspaper these days without seeing discussions and debates, whether it’s issues around so-called critical race theory or LGBTQ rights or any issues of gender equity. They’re all splashed all over the newspapers, which means we’re all talking about them around the water cooler or at family barbecues — really everywhere we turn.

So the inescapability of it is one point. I think another huge challenge is generational. So a lot of younger people who are entering workplaces — we spoke with a corporate leader when we wrote this book who said, “One of the challenges that I’m experiencing is that a lot of people from Generation Z are coming into my workplace and they’re saying, ‘Let’s have forums about the white supremacy in this organization.’ And a lot of the older people in the organization react to that and are like, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ Because they think of that as being really extreme forms of racism.”

I think that generational divide is creating challenges now, as well, because we have five generations all working together in the same workplaces for the first time. And so there’s a lot of friction, I think, that that generates.

Laurie Ruettimann:

It’s interesting that you brought up the different generational tensions that we face. Because one of the things that I’m so struck by is that while Generation Z is coming into the workforce and wants to have these conversations that feel provocative, this is also a generation that doesn’t know how to work together because they have not worked in a physical work location for the most part, for most of their career. So talk to me about the role of the pandemic in creating fraught conversations and adding to the level of tension.

David Glasgow:

It’s a great question because —we actually came up with the idea for this book and started writing it only a few months into the pandemic, when all of the protests around Black Lives Matter and all the social activism really hit a peak. And I think that those things are related to each other. I think the time was ripe for those big protest movements, but I also felt like people had time. Not everyone, I’m a parent of young children, I had less time than ever during the pandemic. But I think a lot of people did have time to really take a step back and reflect on what’s important in life, how we ought to be living as a society, what had been going wrong for a long time. And so I think the pandemic really made people pay attention to these extremely difficult topics of identity, diversity, and justice.

Sometimes, for the first time, a lot of allies flooded into movements that really had never participated in a lot of these conversations before. And so I think that’s created an issue. I think also just the mode in which we speak to each other has changed because a lot of people became chronically online. I certainly did. And we even considered in the book writing a chapter on how to have these conversations on social media. We ultimately abandoned the chapter because we just gave up and said, “Oh, these conversations are awful on social media. I don’t know how to fix them.”

Our encouragement is really, if you’re going to have a conversation about something really heavy like this, maybe get off the platforms that encourage clicks and dunking and actually have that nuanced face-to-face conversation. And so I think that’s created a challenge from the pandemic, as well, is that we’re engaging with each other in conversation in a different format, some of which are not especially healthy or productive for these kinds of conversations.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well, that makes sense. I wonder if you could share with us some of the common mistakes that people make in conversations around identity. What are some examples?

David Glasgow:

So we divide the common mistakes into four categories, which we call avoid, deflect, deny and attack. So we shorten that to ADDA.

So avoid is what it sounds like, which is I run away, I literally leave the room or I go silent. I look at my phone, or I don’t really share what I think.

Deflect is where I change the subject of conversation. So you bring up some issue of identity with me, and instead of engaging with you on that topic, I make it about your tone. So I might say something like, “Well, Laurie, you have a good point, but I don’t appreciate the way that you put it just now.” Or I make it about my good intentions or my good moral character. So I say, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way, or I grew up in a diverse neighborhood, or I’m in an interracial marriage.” And so it then becomes all about me rather than about the issue that you raised with me.

Deny is where I just put up a wall, and I reflexively oppose whatever it is that you tell me. I just say you’re wrong, no questions asked. We differentiate that from disagreement because, obviously, it is OK to have legitimate, respectful disagreements, but denial is where I just shut you down and say that you’re wrong.

And then attack is where I make it personal. So I might insult you, or use sarcasm, or eye-rolling, that kind of behavior to really shut you down in that way.

And so those we see as the four most common conversational traps. And part of the reason why we devote a whole chapter to that topic is that we hope that readers will see themselves in those examples and identify areas where, maybe, they are prone to engaging in these mistakes. I certainly count myself in that, as well. I’m an avoidance guy, but I think a lot of people might find themselves in some of these four categories.

Laurie Ruettimann:

I’m struck by that because I at different points in my life as an ally, as someone who cares about this, have used sarcasm, or have deflected, or have avoided, depending on where I was in my personal journey. I resonate with all four of those. I just wonder if you can share some stories from the book or if you have stories that people have just shared with you after reading the book where they get super-vulnerable and they’re like, “Holy crap. I now see myself a little bit differently.”

David Glasgow:

Sure. And so a personal example for me is when — we talk about in the book a conversation that I had with a group of high-powered professionals of color, and I was the only white person in this conversation and also the youngest person in the conversation. But they had come to me and to my colleague to talk about how they should approach an upcoming meeting with senior colleagues in their profession to advance diversity and inclusion. And they wanted my advice on how they should approach the conversation. 

I remember saying to them something along the lines of, “Oh, well. Those leaders are happy to talk with you because you’re nice.” I thought I was just saying something. It was an off-the-cuff comment, but immediately in the room, they cringed, and one of them said to me, “David, we are respected in our industry because we are really accomplished and we’ve achieved a lot. We’re respected for our talents and abilities. We’re not respected because we are nice.”

I immediately felt incredible guilt. I also felt a bit of self-pity because I thought, “Oh, they’re misinterpreting me. I didn’t mean it like that. Of course, they’re highly accomplished.” But as I said, it really went into a guilty kind of feeling because I immediately saw what I had said, which is it came across as, “Here’s this young white guy telling a bunch of older people of color that they’ve got a nice tone and that’s why people like them.” And so I ended up wallowing in a lot of that guilt. I think this illustrates a lot of what’s so difficult about these conversations because it is a form of deflection that I’m paying much more attention to my own feelings and licking my own wounds than I am in engaging in the actual conversation with these individuals.

But it just goes to show I think how deeply uncomfortable these conversations can be for people who are trying to show up and do the right thing and say the right thing, because I then felt like I had been a terrible ally and I had let people down.

Laurie Ruettimann:

That leads me to, I think the broader question of, what is one supposed to do? Well, and that’s a question of privilege and a question that only certain people can have the right to ask. But there are so many individuals who have said to me along the journey, “I’m afraid to say anything, or I’m afraid to say the wrong thing because I don’t want to get canceled,” which is the most annoying thing to hear. But I also want to validate that. as well. “Yeah. OK, I hear you.” But I don’t have a real good response to that.

So what do you tell people when they start to go down that self-indulgent rabbit hole of cancel culture?

David Glasgow:

We have our chapter in the book about resilience, where we talk about the importance of really grounding yourself emotionally for these conversations. Because we think that’s just such a foundational skill of recognizing the fear that you’re experiencing and then processing that fear in a mature and helpful way. So just to highlight a couple of strategies that we talk about there.

One is that we borrow from the social psychologist, Dolly Chugh, who has written about a fixed mindset and a growth mindset and how they show up in these conversations. I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with the basic distinction from the psychologist Carol Dweck’s work between a fixed mindset where you think that your talents and abilities are innate. And if you’re not good at something, you probably will never be good at it, versus a growth mindset, where you apply effort and realize that you can learn and get better at something with practice.

Now, Dolly Chugh points out that in this arena of conversations about identity, we tend to get stuck in a fixed mindset because the consequences of failure seem so great. If I make a mistake when I’m playing the piano, I don’t think that makes me a terrible person. I just think I need to practice and do better next time. If I make a mistake in this arena, as you say, I’m going to think, “Oh my goodness, I’m going to get canceled, or I’m going to hurt someone I care about. But either way, it’s going to be catastrophic. I’ve become a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe,” or whatever it is. So we point out, and Dolly Chugh points out, it’s really critical to pause and try to apply that same growth mindset that you would apply to other areas of your life to this one.

If you find yourself engaging in self-talk like, “I’m just not good at pronouns,” which a lot of people say. You would add the word “yet” to that and say, “I’m not good at pronouns yet, but if I practice them, I can get better over time.” So that’s triggering your mind to engage in more of that growth mindset-oriented way.

And then another strategy that we talk about is naming and reframing your emotions. Oftentimes in these conversations, we feel incredibly uncomfortable, but that arrives as a nameless dread. Whereas if we pause and identify what emotion you’re experiencing — and the foremost common ones we talk about are fear, anger, guilt, and hopelessness — if you actually pause and say, “You know what? I think I’m feeling fear right now.” You can then reframe that emotional experience and ask yourself, “Is there a more productive way of thinking about this so that I’m not wallowing in my own fear?”

If you find yourself saying, “I’ve got an opinion, but if I share it, everyone’s going to cancel me.” That’s a very fear-based response. Try to reframe that into something like, “People might criticize me for this, but I’ll share my views respectfully, and I can handle the criticism.” That’s a much more productive, less fear-based way of engaging in a conversation.

Laurie Ruettimann:

I also think there’s a real lack of vulnerability around the fact that people will make mistakes and people may say the wrong things. And so, one of the struggles that I know many in corporate America have had is a real misunderstanding of how to apologize and take ownership, and actually move forward. So do you have any recommendations on, in the moment, how to apologize, how to take ownership and how to move forward?

David Glasgow:

Absolutely. So we think that apologies contain four elements of recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress, so the four R’s of an apology. And I think if you keep those four Rs in your head when you’re crafting an apology, you’re well on your way.

Recognition is about recognizing the harm. A lot of times people fail at this element by using the word “if.” They’ll say, “I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m sorry if you’re upset. I’m sorry if you take it that way.” And what those formulations all do is make it seem like the harm is uncertain that you didn’t actually really do anything wrong. It might just be the problem is that the other person’s reaction to what you said. So try to avoid those formulations.

Responsibility is taking personal responsibility for causing the harm. Here a lot of people make the mistake of using the word but. So people might say, “I’m sorry, but I was stressed. I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry, but I’m not a racist.” And in all of those examples, you’re acknowledging the harm that you caused, but you’re trying to distance yourself from it by suggesting that you are not personally responsible for it. So famously, of course, the comedian Roseanne Barr, when she wrote a racist tweet, her defense the next day was, “I’m sorry, but it was 2:00 in the morning, and I was Ambien tweeting.” That’s a good example of a but apology because it was, “Well, yeah, I’m sorry for what I did, but also the medication made me post this online.” That’s an extreme example, but I think all of us engage in those kind of half-apologies from time to time.

Then there’s remorse, which is just expressing sincere contrition for what you did. A terrible example of someone failing at that was the celebrity chef Mario Batali, who wrote an apology for sexual harassment. And then at the bottom of the apology, he said, “P.S., if you want a recipe for pizza dough, cinnamon rolls, here’s a nice recipe.” And so, of course, that calls into question the sincerity of the apology when you’re adding a cinnamon roll recipe to your apology. And so there’s no form of words that communicates remorse, exactly, but it’s really, all things considered, are you sincerely communicating your regret for what you did?

And then finally redress, and this is backing up your apology with action. A lot of the reason why people don’t like apologies is because they are all talk and no action. And so, redress is really important to show the other person by taking tangible steps to repair the harm. If you’ve said sorry to someone, it’s a commitment to engage in best efforts to not do that again — maybe even check in with the other person later, how am I doing on that, to make sure that you recognize that the apology does not end the conversation. The apology really begins the process of longer-term repair.

Laurie Ruettimann:

I love all of those examples on how to really formulate a better relationship with the person that you have harmed. And I think that’s what we’re talking about. But so often people get caught up in this idea, maybe, because of social media, that one mistake is career-ending. From my experience, Louis C.K. didn’t make one mistake. He made a series of mistakes, a lifetime of mistakes. He didn’t demonstrate any of those skills that you just mentioned in his apologies, and then went on to double down on that behavior. I just think so many times, many of us conflate our own experiences with that of a crazy celebrity. It’s the social media that gets in the way of the true understanding of the relationship. I don’t know. What do you think about that?

David Glasgow:

Yes, I agree that social media is a kind of particularly difficult environment for having these conversations. I think people forget sometimes that a lot of real-life conversations are very different from what’s going on in social media. So for example, just within the law school where I work at NYU, if you look only at what’s covered on social media, you would think, “Oh my goodness, this is going to be a hotbed of everyone canceling each other and screaming at each other and what have you.” 

Whereas actually, if you talk to our students, they’re wonderful. They’re extremely thoughtful, they’re able to have nuanced conversations, bring different ideas to the table, and it’s always just such a joy to engage with our students in these conversations. And so I think, again, social media can tend to bring out a particularly toxic form of communication in most of us. Some of us can rise above it, but I certainly find it very difficult to engage productively in social media conversations.

I do think it underscores the importance of having these conversations with people face to face and not anchoring so much on the fact that there’s a mob of people attacking someone online. Because it’s unlikely in your day-to-day life, if you are having a conversation around conference room table with your colleagues, that 20,000 people are all going to mob you and attack you and drive you out of the organization. More likely if you handle it well, if you handle it with sensitivity and respect and appropriately in the way that we talk about in the book, you should be able to have a productive conversation and a way forward.

Laurie Ruettimann:

That’s a lovely way, though, that you describe the law school where you work, where people engage with one another. They care about one another, they generally show one another respect. There is such a conversation happening that’s probably not grounded in reality about what it’s like to be on campus these days.

You touched on it, but can you talk a little bit more about whether or not people are really as angry as they seem on the news?

David Glasgow:

It’s one of those situations where it can be hard to get a pulse of the median person. Because, as usual in the media, the media likes to highlight conflict, and they like to highlight extreme positions. I think in any environment, and certainly on campus, you are going to get student activists from different ends of the political spectrum who do like to stoke controversy and create the drama that the media tends to fixate on.

Some of that, I have to say, is good. I don’t like the idea that a lot of the more extreme forms of activism should be squashed, and this is a terrible thing. Because that’s how social progress often happens, is that people speak out about injustice in a way that is confrontational and makes people feel uncomfortable. I welcome a lot of that. But I will say that the average student, in my experience, is exactly how I described before — which is, despite the media headlines, the average student comes to a law school like NYU really eager to learn, and to expand their own mind, and to engage in conversation with professors and with each other around complex issues.

That’s something that I really value about working for NYU is being surrounded by so many thoughtful people.

Laurie Ruettimann:

That’s lovely to hear. As we start to wrap up the conversation, I’ve been thinking about what these conversations look like when they go right, and the potential of change to happen in our world when we nail these conversations, when they feel good, when people walk away really feeling heard and understood, and they’ve learned something.

Can you speak to that a little bit? What is the power? What is the potential, and what does it look like?

David Glasgow:

Yeah, it’s a great question because part of the reason we came to this book in the first place is that my co-author, Kenji Yoshino and I, we are both gay men. And we had an experience as many gay individuals do, growing up where we had both the good and the bad of coming out and talking about our own identity — where people reacted poorly to that and then people reacted well. We remember every single one of those conversations, even though they happened a long time ago. I think that speaks to the power of these conversations is that you may think that you’re just engaging in a random conversation with someone, but that other person might remember that conversation for decades to come. That’s the impact that conversations can have on people, which is at some level terrifying because it’s, “Oh my goodness, something I say now can impact someone for decades.”

But I also think it speaks to how transformative they can be. Because a big part of it is, “Does this person feel heard and respected and seen by me?” We have a chapter in the book about curiosity, the importance of really approaching these conversations with humility, understanding that there’s a lot of things that you don’t know and that the other person brings to the conversation. 

I think when these conversations are done well, the other person can walk away from it thinking, “Wow, I really felt heard in that conversation. I really felt like that other person saw what I was trying to say and recognized me for who I am.” I think that that can be incredibly life-changing for people, especially when they’re coming to you in a state of vulnerability. Because these conversations are so vulnerable for people. There’s so much fear.

We’ve been talking a lot about the fear on the side of the person who worries that they’re going to get canceled. It’s so important to remember that there’s such fear on the other side of these conversations, as well — where people fear that they’re going to get shut down, that they’re going to get ignored, that they’re going to get retaliated against for opening up themselves and some vulnerable part of themselves to a person who may be more powerful than they are, a manager and so forth. So I think showing as a leader, or even just as a colleague or friend, that when someone is vulnerable and opens themselves to you, that rather than meeting that with a avoid, deflect, deny or attack behavior, you are meeting that with true openness, curiosity, listening, empathy. That can be extremely transformative in people’s lives.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well, thank you for reminding us of the bravery of those who come to us and raise issues, raise questions, want to talk about their identity. That is fraught with complicated possibilities, and I think those individuals more and more need to be recognized for the courageous, brave people that they are. So thank you for doing that.

David Glasgow:

Oh, absolutely. I 100% agree.

Laurie Ruettimann:

Well David, I’m so excited for people to read your work, to connect with you, to just check in with your ongoing research. If people want to find more about you or the book, where should they go?

David Glasgow:

The book is called “Say the Right Thing,” so you can just type that into Google and you’ll find it at any retailer. And then if you want to follow our work, we work at the Meltzer Center, so M-E-L-T-Z-E-R. If you just type in Meltzer Center into Google, you should find us and follow us online, as well.

Laurie Ruettimann:

I love that. We’ll make sure we share all of that in the show notes. I just want to say thanks again, and please share my best with Kenji. It was really great to have you as a guest today on Punk Rock HR.

David Glasgow:

Oh, well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Laurie Ruettimann:

If you’re interested in learning more about today’s show, you can visit punkrockhr.com. There you’ll find show notes, links, resources, and all the good stuff.

Now, that’s all for today. Thanks for joining us sharing this episode and leaving thoughtful comments on Instagram and LinkedIn. We appreciate your support, this and every week on Punk Rock HR.