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A State of Belonging: Staying Curious and Building Connection in Pride Month and Beyond

I recently saw a TikTok video where the actor Dominique Fishback was being interviewed about a movie alongside her costars. The interviewer asked each cast member to state a fact about themselves and prompted the costars to guess whether it was true. When it was Fishback’s turn, she made the statement, “I know sign language.” Her peers quickly guessed that was not true, but to their surprise, she revealed it was completely true. The interviewer, also seemingly surprised, asked Fishback how it came about that she learned how to sign.

She replied that she pursued sign language in her college studies, explaining further that as a Black person who often must go into spaces where no one is forced to understand her lived experience and where she comes from, she wondered what it would be like to be deaf. What would it be like from that experience to navigate the world and nobody else is required to navigate with you, because they don’t have to?

Fishback thought learning sign language would be of help to others who felt like they did not have a space to belong, similar to her own experiences as a woman of color in the world. She went on to recount a story about working at a movie theater when a deaf customer came up with her daughter to order popcorn. As Fishback filled the popcorn bucket, she was turned away from the mother and asked, “Do you want butter on your popcorn?” The customer signed that she was deaf. When Fishback then signed the question for the customer instead, she lit up, signing to her daughter how exciting it was to encounter someone who could communicate with her during such a common event—going to the movies.

In that moment, Dominique Fishback created belonging for that mother.

Belonging Creates a Sense of Security and Improves Performance

Belonging is something our brains are hardwired to crave because it taps into our innate desire for connection. We are social creatures by nature, so experiences of belonging promote positive brain responses. To truly belong is a feeling unlike any other. We know this because many of us know what it feels like to not belong, to not fit in, and to not feel welcomed. Exclusion is a roadblock to belonging. When we find spaces where we belong, we are better for it. We gain a sense of increased comfort in our presence and our identities and can be our authentic selves, which typically guides us to more vulnerability in how we connect with others.

Connection drives connection. This is true in our personal lives and in the workplace. Across the globe, more companies than ever before are striving towards shaping environments that build the potential for belonging, the result of diversity and inclusion working in harmony. Belonging is not just a buzz word that is without measurable impact at work. Studies have shown that the power of belonging at work helps to reduce sick days and turnover while conversely increasing job performance and overall employee engagement and satisfaction. So, there is both an organizational and human value proposition for creating belonging at work, and so much can be done at the organizational level to foster belonging.

One of the ways organizations are cultivating belonging in today’s workplace is by recognizing monthly diversity celebrations such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Mental Health Awareness Month, Pride Month, etc. One goal of celebrating these events is to raise awareness across the organization for what life is like for individuals that identify with any given monthly celebration, how people can show up as allies for them, and generally celebrating the diversity these individuals bring to the workforce.

Diversity should be celebrated. As that awareness increases, so does curiosity. Employees that want to drive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) culture at work want to know more about how they can provide allyship to others. Staying curious about each other and acting on it is a great way to stay open to what makes us different and then value our unique qualities, but more importantly, to identify where we share common ground. That common ground creates belonging.

Getting Curious and Asking Questions

So, what do we do when we need answers, when we are curious about something or someone? We ask questions. How we go about asking questions is important to consider; despite being well-intentioned, our questions may create conflict between intention and impact.

As Pride Month ends in 2023, for anyone striving to be more inclusive at work and wanting to gain more awareness about their LGBTQ+ peers, it is advantageous to reflect on our approach to learning more and asking questions before we act. Hopefully, this helps us stay in the right intention, guiding us towards better ways to be allies and ultimately increasing belonging for others.

Before going to someone in the LGBTQ+ community to ask questions about their identity or lived experiences, consider these guidelines:

  • Stay curious, not interrogational: Be mindful of rapid-fire questioning or questions that carry a tone of challenge. As a cisgender, gay man who is married to a man and has two young sons, I know what it is like to be peppered with questions about my identity, family, and marriage. It can be overwhelming. People tend to welcome the opportunity to share insight about themselves, but if the approach is too assertive or they feel as if they are under a hot spotlight, the conversation tends to flatline. As you ask questions, set a calm, warm tone from the start and gauge whether the recipient seems ready to talk as well.
  • Do your own research first: LGBTQ+ people are not living encyclopedias just waiting to educate others on their orientation, identity expression, or gender. This applies to all equity seeking communities. A lot of questions can always be addressed by a quick Google search before going to a person directly. In fact, that search can often set you up for better dialogue and more connected questions later.
  • Consider the relationship: The excitement to be an ally can sometimes push us to come across as performative or too eager. We must take a moment to evaluate the relationship we have with someone before asking them a potentially personal question. Have you talked with this person about these types of topics before? Are you close colleagues or just acquaintances that say hello to each other in meetings a few times each month? How would you react if they were to come and ask you personal questions? Considering your current relationship with this person might compel you to still move forward confidently, cause you to wait until you have built the right connection, or not move forward at all.
  • Apply the question to similar scenarios: Reflect on whether this question would resonate or be appropriate with someone else not within the LGBTQ+ community. For example, if you wouldn’t ask a cisgender, straight man about the roles he and his wife play in their marriage, then you should not ask a transgender, gay man. Just because we are curious does not automatically give us permission to ask. Applying the question to a different person in the same scenario helps us vet the question’s appropriateness and helps us check any bias we might have.
  • Consider who benefits: If we want to show up as allies, then our questions and subsequent answers should benefit both us and the other person, but more so the other person. Otherwise, we are not being true allies and instead are making it about ourselves. Be sure to ask questions that will strengthen the relationship, help drive clarity for how to be an ally, or create a sense of belonging. If we just want to know something for the sake of knowing, it is a question probably better left unanswered.
  • Some questions will never be okay: Realize that even after we evaluate the relationship, conduct research, intend to set the right tone, check our bias, and see the benefits of asking the question—some questions are just off limits. Period. One of the best ways to identify an off-limits question is ask someone that you trust and have a close relationship with, likely outside of the workplace, who identifies as LGBTQ+ whether the question would make them uncomfortable or offend. If they say yes, then the question is a no-go.

Did you notice that we are not outlining a list of “Questions to Ask” versus “Questions NOT to Ask”? The reality is, things are not that simple or easy to define, because human beings are not that simple. Every person, whether LGBTQ+ or not, carries nuance, despite the near fact that we are typically more alike than we realize. Through shaping and confirming our intentions, quickly reflecting, and preparing our approach, we can ask questions that drive connection and hopefully result in more frequent feelings of belonging. This is not work we only do during Pride Month in June for our LGBTQ+ colleagues, but what we should do all year round, for everyone at work.

Learning more about each other by staying curious and asking questions helps us to better understand what it is like for those that are not like us to exist in the world each day, especially for people within marginalized communities. Maybe one day creating inclusion through meaningful connection will just be a thriving workplace habit—a workplace of unconscious inclusion, with everyone in constant and excited curiosity to know more about and include each other. Perhaps those are big expectations for our future workspaces and the concept of belonging.

Dominique Fishback was able to build an inclusive connection for a stranger over popcorn in a matter of seconds because she set that intention in motion when she decided to learn sign language. Surely each of us can find a small opportunity in our busy days at work to create connection with someone who is different from us and through those affirm for that individual: You belong here. We all want that. Happy Pride Month everyone!

About the Authors

James Garza
James Garza (he/him/his) currently serves as a Leadership and DE&I Consultant at GP Strategies. With 20 years in leadership, organizational, and content development, James helps organizations and leaders first understand the power behind belonging, fulfillment, and purpose at work, and then supports their journey in creating environments that produce those same ideas. He follows a fully consultative approach by clearly understanding current organizational objectives and identifying ways to align those goals against culture and leadership development, process efficiency, and overall future potential. Starting out in operational training, James has held leadership and consultant positions in the areas of customer experience, employee engagement, technical training, leadership development, and quality assurance. He has assisted companies in creating global leadership development programs from the ground up, with a continuous focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). James has led organizational DE&I initiatives related to Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), diversity and inclusion training, policy and procedure equity review, and executive communication and coaching. He recently designed the GP Strategies DE&I product portfolio in partnership with a peer expert, Dwight Bailey, Owner of FirstServe Leaders, and most recently designed and hosted webinars on the topics of: Bias & Microaggressions, Impact of Racism, and Creating an Anti-Racist Organization. He brings a unique perspective to the world of DE&I as a gay, bi-racial man who is also a father to two special needs sons. Those life experiences motivate him to always work with others using empathy and kindness, believing that we are all more alike than we are different.

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