How Implicit Bias Affects Your Communication Skills

Do you truly understand your biases?  Are you aware of their existence, how they affect your communication, and consequently, how you are perceived?

Defined by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, “implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner” (Kirwan, 2015). The NeuroLeadership Institute’s David Rock has been heard to proclaim at sessions that, “if you have a brain, you’re biased.” The implication is not that every person is prejudiced.  This only means that our attitudes are shaped by our experiences through cognitive, social, and behavioral formation.  Put simply, our biases are shaped by our experiences, and can conflict with our explicit beliefs.  This is most prevalent is our everyday favoring of our own in-group (the “like me” bias) that is created by gravitating towards those that best represent the qualities we find in ourselves.  We give greater credibility to those that represent our own likeness, values, ideals, and social norms. 

Awareness of a bias is certainly helpful, but only scratches the surface.  Our brains can be retrained through many techniques to unlearn biases, and research is ongoing in that area.  To illustrate the value in uncovering bias, let’s address the ways implicit bias can affect your communication skills and how that is perceived by others.

Your communication is carried forward not only verbally, but also non-verbally.  Your reaction to a subject or speaker may easily be conveyed through your tone, body language, facial expression, whether you are actually listening, and even your posture.  Your partner in the conversation may be unsure of your reaction and make negative assumptions about your attitude towards the topic, or even themselves.  All the while, you are unaware that you have conveyed this communication because you are unconscious of your response and possibly unaware that there is a bias.

This takes us back to the questions in the opening paragraph.  Are you aware of, and do you understand your biases?  If you have answered no, the first step is that education.  Project Implicit is one place in which to first uncover those biases in which you may not be aware.  Begun as a coordinated project between University of Washington, Harvard University, and University of Virginia in 1998, Project Implicit has grown to address a myriad of social attitudes.  By utilizing their online tool (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/) you can take the first steps. Let’s be honest, even if you answered yes, this is still a good exercise, even if it’s a repeat.

Your brain can be retrained to adapt to new perceptions regarding implicit bias according to the American Psychology Association with the following three steps as an overarching method:

  • Becoming aware of one’s implicit bias;
  • Being concerned about the consequences of the bias; and
  • Learning to replace the biased response with non-prejudiced responses—ones that more closely match the values people consciously believe that they hold (Devine, 2011).

Working towards a more inclusive communication style is not only beneficial to your personal growth, but also to your career trajectory. 

Published by Melissa A. Walker, Ph.D.

Training and Development Network believes there is always a positive way to engage, develop, and retain your employees; create a supportive environment for diversity, equity, and inclusion; assess opportunities to build on current knowledge or skills; and facilitate change management for any organization. We believe in engaging, actionable programs that enable your staff and leadership to immediately implement tools for change and growth. TAD offers a variety services for both the individual and the organization. We are here help you navigate career challenges, or achieve your organizational or event goals. Contact us to start your proactive journey today.

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