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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, Guest Post, STEM

Guest Post – Unconscious Bias: The Pyramid Principle – How to Achieve Successful Dialogue About Bias

Guest Post Author: Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

cheops-pyramid-2I remember some years ago sitting in my hotel room in Cairo, feet up on the sill, gazing out the window at one of the most amazing sights on the planet: the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Looming in the mist, it was grander and more elegant than its likeness in even the most touched-up travel photograph.

I wasn’t thinking much about bias reduction on that lovely evening, but the image stayed with me. Eventually, the Pyramid came to mind when looking for a way to describe a principle of good communication in the face of bias. It, in fact, formed the foundation for what I call the Pyramid Principle of communication. This strategy is particularly useful when faced with the uncomfortable, but necessary, prospect of speaking up when encountering a biased statement uttered by team members or colleagues.

This strategy is informed by what any architect knows about building. Whether it is when constructing the Pyramid of Cheops or Blenheim Palace or the Vatican or the Great Wall of China, the only way to proceed is one stone at a time.

When it comes to conversations about bias, this means we need to adopt the motto: “Think small.” This approach comes in particularly handy when, in the heat of the conversation, we become overloaded by the scope of the issue and the intensity of emotion. That overload can, in turn, leave us paralyzed and unable to act.

The trick to popping the clutch and getting moving again is to sidestep the main issue of the conflict for a moment—don’t worry, you’ll get back to it later—and, instead, build a foundation of small successes on which the solution to the big problem can ultimately rest. By thinking smaller, we create bite-size steps that can be swallowed without gagging and that are manageable even when we are lost in a maze of self-consciousness, anger, or fear.

Here are some of the smaller stones:

  • Take a beat before speaking in order to gather your thoughts and get a handle on emotion: Stone number one.
  • Then we might admit our discomfort and thereby crack open the door to better dialogue: Stone number two.
  • Another element is to take turns talking for short periods without interruption or reprisal from the other: Stone number three.
  • Then there’s the notion of making a pact that, should one person not understand something, he or she would ask for clarification: Stone number four.
  • And, of course, there’s always that most important strategy of all – listen: Stone number five.

And wider and wider the base becomes and firmer the foundation until we have constructed, if not the Great Pyramid of Cheops, at least a modest structure of good communication with the potential of understanding and change.

Post Note: This post initially appeared on the author’s website, www.thiederman.com, on April 15, 2019.

About Sondra Thiederman:  Honored as a “Pioneer in Diversity” by Profiles in Diversity Journal, Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. has been immersed in the topics of unconscious bias and workplace diversity/inclusion for nearly three decades. In addition to her work with Fortune 500 companies, government organizations, and dozens of associations, Sondra has served on the Diversity Council of the American Red Cross, is an Expert Panelist for O’Mara and Richter’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World, and has consulted for the University of California.

She can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations on defeating unconscious bias at www.thiederman.com, P: 619-583-4478, or STPhD@Thiederman.com.

© copyright 2016 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.



About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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