Inclusive Communication: Three Principles

Sarah Cordivano
Nov 13, 2019 · 4 min read
A group of miscellaneous letters from a printing press.
Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash.

Recently, I gave a talk on Inclusive Communication at an Internal Communication conference in Berlin. If you didn’t happen to be there for the talk, I’ve summarized it in this post.

This talk explores three main principles of inclusive communication for internal communications in a professional setting. Before we dive in to inclusive communication, let’s define diversity and inclusion. This is an important step because often the concepts get conflated and confused and it’s difficult to see their individual purposes.

Diversity:

The seen and unseen characteristics and experiences, visible and invisible, which define who we are and how we experience the world around us. These include (but are not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religious and cultural background, familial status, age, languages spoken, and more.

Inclusion:

Creating an environment of respect, connection and community, where all people can feel respected and valued. Inclusion means that all perspectives and contributions are valued, and team members are empowered to be their full, authentic selves.

The main takeaway I’ll share regarding these definitions is that I believe inclusion is often more important than diversity because it creates an environment where people from diverse backgrounds and with different experiences can all feel a sense of belonging. Without that inclusive environment, you do not have a working environment that is welcoming. The people you hire through recruiting initiatives or other efforts will not feel safe and welcome in your organization and they will quickly leave.

I hope you can guess that inclusive communication is an important part of making an inclusive work environment. Essentially I would define inclusive communication as:

Inclusive language values the importance of words and the impact they have. Inclusive communication is free from language that perpetuate stereotypes, negative expectations or limitations. By adapting your language, you can involve your entire audience more fully and inspire them to contribute more confidently.

Now that we have established the difference between inclusion and diversity what inclusive communication means, let’s explore the principles of inclusive communication.

The Three Principles of Inclusive Communication

Principle 1: Empathy
Inclusion is not a checklist but a continuous exercise in empathy.

Do not approach inclusion (or specifically inclusive communication) as a checklist of experiences or accommodations to tick off a list. Instead, connect empathetically with your audience. Think about their experiences and how language and communication can impact the way they absorb your message. For example, consider the need for employees use a name other than what’s on their legal documents. To understand this more, read about deadnaming and what this can mean for the trans community. Enabling a flexible names policy is not just a process to put in place, it is actually a way to acknowledge and recognize trans identity.

Principle 2: Culture
Communication is only one part of culture. Work with your community to build inclusive company culture, bottom up not top down.

Work with your community groups (for example employee resource groups) by empowering them and giving them a voice in your communications. They know their community better than anyone — ask for their experiences, listen and take them to heart. Consider a program that features their stories and experiences in official communication. This empowers them, gives them visibility and gives more authenticity to your communication.

Principle 3: Empowerment
Provide tools for inclusion and showcase role model behavior.

Leaders are role models, whether they want to be or not, whether they are good role models or not, they become role models as everyone looks up to them. They need your support including coaching and guidance to be experts in communication. They set the bar for the rest of the company so empowering them goes a long way for your organization.

And provide resources, like inclusive language guides, books and resources for everyone in your organization so people can build their own skills, awareness and grow. You have to meet people where they are and give them the tools to grow. Consider offering a library of books to borrow on topics of diversity and inclusion. Or try scheduling a podcast club (or discussion group) to encourage people to drive their own learning journey by listening to and discussing relevant podcasts. This empowers them to take ownership in creating an inclusive work environment.

Final Thoughts

Inclusive communication (like inclusion) has no finish line. It’s a continuous journey and it’s only possible to take this journey with small steps. Here are a few thoughts to help you along the way:

  1. Learn. Actively and continuously challenge yourself to widen your own views.
  2. Recognize progress. Recognize and celebrate incremental progress you have made as you work towards improvements with your team and communication strategy.
  3. Start a conversation. Ask for feedback from employees on how inclusive your communication actually is. Listen, believe their experiences and take the feedback to heart to make improvements.

Further reading
To read more about inclusive communication, please find my other posts:

Pronouns for Inclusion
Simple Language is Inclusive Language
Giving up “guys” (and embracing y’all)

Sarah Cordivano

Writing on best practices and revelations for DEI in a global workplace.

Sarah Cordivano

This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.

Sarah Cordivano

Written by

Community Building, Equity, Inclusion and Maps. Former Philadelphian, Current Berliner. Twitter @mapadelphia & LinkedIn.

Sarah Cordivano

This publication explores practical diversity, equity and inclusion guidance for driving change in a global working environment. Header photo credit: @aznbokchoy on Unsplash.