Therapeutic Skills in the Workplace
Confronting Racial Wounds
"Let’s be real. There’s no respect on this team,” Nia blurts out. “What went down during the last staff meeting, that racist stuff that was said, does that not piss the rest of you off?”
There are 21 people on this Zoom call. I can see each of their faces on the screen, and no one looks ready to respond. Nia isn’t cowed by the silence. Shaking her head, she leans closer to her camera and excoriates the group. “It’s been four weeks. No one has said anything about it!”
The mood of the call shifts to palpable discomfort. Some people are looking off to the side or have sat back in their chairs. But not me. I’m riveted. As a therapist, I see Nia’s anger as a gift. It takes guts to express this much irritation to coworkers, especially a group that I’m gleaning is normally affable and polite—likely too polite.
I’m here as an outside consultant, brought in to provide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training to this corporate team. My aim today is to help them learn to engage with issues that touch on diversity in an honest and constructive fashion. They work for a small tech company, and this is part of their routine professional development. When they hired me, the head of HR had alluded to the “usual DEI challenges,” but she hadn’t mentioned a particular pain point. It’s quite possible she didn’t know it existed, but I’m not surprised that we’ve already hit on one. These days, they abound.
The combination of the pandemic and ongoing racialized violence has intensified pressures in diverse workplaces like this one. Increasingly, the general training I provide on how to begin constructive DEI conversations is getting usurped by simmering tensions.
The work I do with this team will be limited to just three sessions, so I need to help them through this particular pain point quickly. It’s clear from their expressions that some of them know exactly what Nia is referring to, and the virtual air is now thick with apprehension. Like a family member confronting siblings in therapy for the first time, Nia has struck a nerve.
Therapy in the Workplace
Do I need to be a therapist to do this work? No, certainly not. But it’s become increasingly evident to me that clinical tools can make a big difference with coworkers stuck in seemingly intractable DEI conflicts. When you can offer a safe container for them to name and navigate their various identities, experiences, and emotions, they stand a better chance of moving forward together, instead of remaining developmentally arrested.
We family therapists understand how important it can be to name any elephants in the room, and I’m grateful to Nia for showing us one that I couldn’t have seen without her. She’s offered me a clear path forward for this meeting. Okay, I say to myself. Here we go.
“Would anyone like to weigh in on what Nia said?” I ask.
After what seems like a full, cringing minute, Tom, the head of marketing, unmutes his mic. “I’m surprised to hear this, Nia,” he says. A middle-aged white man who’d started the meeting wearing a jovial expression, he now looks genuinely perplexed. “I personally don’t recall anyone saying anything racist.”
This comment hangs heavily in the air, and it’s followed by a wave of unmistakable nonverbal reactions: furrowed brows, darting eyes, pursed lips. Glimmers of concern, I think to myself, for where his words could lead them. Tom notices the looks too and quickly adds, “But maybe I missed something.”
Mateo, from the research and development team, knows just what Nia means and chimes in next. No more than 30 years old, with jet black, wavy hair, he says, “I remember that discussion clearly. We’d moved on from the budget and were talking about what to do about the homeless people who hang out at our entrance. Some of us folks of color mentioned how many of them are Black and Brown, and how racism plays a big role in their situation, but someone else felt the need to shut that comment down and say the issue wasn’t about race.”
He pauses and closes his eyes for a second. Then, sensing that further explanation might be needed, he adds, “How was that not about race? Everyone can clearly see who the folks are that’ve been hanging out in front of this building. Only five percent of the people who live in this city are Black, but they make up nearly 40 percent of the homeless population here. Why is that? Are we even asking ourselves that question? Obviously, it’s about race. Aren’t we going to acknowledge that? If we don’t, how can we even hope to respond to the problem appropriately?” Mateo shakes his head in disbelief.
“What some of us were trying to say was how we must be sensitive to the issue of race if we’re going to figure out what to do. But apparently, that was too threatening for some others.” He adds, “What upset me most was how none of the managers said anything. They just moved on.”
As Mateo leans back, brusquely muting his mic and crossing his arms, I’m able to absorb what they’re dealing with here. When leaders and white people try to minimize the sociocultural realities of racism—in this case the disproportionate numbers of homeless people in large cities who are people of color—they shut down the possibility of vital and fruitful discussions about race with the very people affected by it the most. This kind of self-protection can create frustration and distrust in diverse workplaces.
"Her voice loses strength, and I can feel them thinking Is this okay? Should it be getting real like this? Can we be this emotional at work?"
A moment later, Angela leans forward and blurts out, “As one of the managers who was at that meeting, maybe I should’ve said something. But, honestly—.” As she pauses, her irritation becomes plain. Her face reddens as she swipes a loose strand of hair from her cheek and blows out a breath.
Uh oh. I brace for what I know is about to come.
“What should I have said? Some people were talking about the tents and blankets by the front door; others apparently wanted to discuss a much larger societal issue. My job is to allow employees to say what they need to without interrupting them,” Angela says. “And as someone who’s white, I thought I should just stay quiet and let the people of color talk. Also, we had so much on the agenda for that meeting. I meant to follow up afterward with you, Nia, but then—.” She looks down.
She’s playing defense, I think. The therapist in me is in familiar territory. This is clearly a work-family mired in conflict. As some name the problem, others defend, challenge, and deny. Others still are rendered peripheral as they quietly and helplessly watch the main players stumble. The dance between Nia and Angela feels particularly central. Maybe less as a DEI trainer and more as a clinician, I’m thinking it might help to focus on this duo to further expose and hopefully treat the wound that’s been festering in the group.
I want this work-family to stay in the messy feelings that have surfaced, so I hang back and let the uneasy silence linger. Then I direct my attention to Nia. As I was observing how others responded to her, it was clear she has the kind of influence in this group that could be pivotal to enacting change. “Nia, what do you think about what Angela just shared?” I ask.
By the fleeting glimmer of surprise in her eyes, I can tell that this kind of ask—the invitation to address someone and lean into the pain point—is a deviation from the team’s usual routine. Good, I think. This is what we need. A new dance.
Nia’s up for the challenge, and she answers with no hesitation: “You’re right, Angela. There was a lot on the agenda, and the discussion of race was important. When you and the other managers didn’t say anything, it felt like you couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with it, which is what we usually do in this team, pretend nothing happened and hope it doesn’t come back up.”
A short pause follows before Nia offers a poignant reflection. “Like I said, we’re not talking honestly and openly with each other. Many of us are feeling unheard and disrespected—which makes it hard to feel like we’re a team.”
There’s resignation in her voice, and I feel for her. I’ve no doubt that for team members of color, like Nia and Mateo, what transpired in the staff meeting a month ago was loaded, and it likely aggravated their long-standing racial injuries, both inside and outside the workplace.
When a leader like Angela, regardless of her intentions, defends her position behind rigid, self-protecting rules, it serves to further invalidate marginalized voices and polarize a team. HR had told me that this group has had other consultations like mine—and that’s evident in the way they’re not entirely frozen in fear, like some first-timers. But I can tell something different needs to happen this time if they’re going to make the kind of progress that sustains inclusive workplaces.
In a gentle and measured tone, I break the silence. “Thank you all for all you shared. I imagine it wasn’t easy, and I applaud your courage and honesty. Nia, can you tell us more about how what you heard made you feel personally?”
For a second, she’s quiet, and I worry that I’ve pushed her too hard too soon. I don’t really know Nia, or anyone on this call for that matter; we’ve all just met, after all. One of the downsides of this work is that there’s rarely time to build rapport, never mind the ever-crucial therapeutic alliance.
I’m also anxious about whether I’m putting undue burden on Nia. I don’t want to perpetuate the emotional labor that people of color are asked to shoulder in order to make talking about racial oppression palatable to white people. But I know that the core of Nia’s experience, including her anger, needs to be heard. It’s important for her team, too.
As if hearing my silent plea, Nia finally responds. “It was really hurtful,” she says. “As a Black woman, it seemed like once again my perspective only mattered to me. Maybe some people thought my having an issue about ‘the problem of those homeless people’ was irrelevant, or that I was overreacting when I said that comment felt racist. Maybe they didn’t know what to say, so they said nothing. I get it. But regardless, it was damaging and hurtful.”
Same Skills, New Context
Even though I know this team hadn’t signed up for family therapy, I decide I’m still going to push a little harder. “Nia,” I say, “that sounds painful. It also sounds like this isn’t a new hurt.”
“You’re right,” she says. “I know that the people in this meeting mean well for the most part, but I’m so tired of feeling invisible, and tired of constantly bringing up issues of race only to be told that ‘it’s not a big deal’ and to ‘try to calm down.’”
Her voice loses a measure of strength and starts to shake, eliciting awkward expressions from the others. I can feel them thinking, Is this okay? Should it be getting real like this? Can we be this emotional at work?
When I first started doing this work, I asked the same questions. Yes, I’ve sat in my therapy office with countless distressed families, unpacking layers of hurt feelings, unresolved interpersonal trauma, ruptures, and disconnections. But that office is a protected, contained space. Workplaces, no matter how progressive they may be, can’t promise the same safety.
And yet, some groups of coworkers, as they broach and heal long-standing racial traumas, could desperately use therapeutic interventions. Without a willingness to engage clinically, we risk leaving them mired in a cycle of complaining about their issues and one another, without ever getting what they really need, which is often just to start talking.
Just as families in therapy often dance around core issues and talk at or over one another, this team needed to resist the pull to avoid, project, and distract. To create and hold a space for them to talk honestly, listen deeply, and get unstuck, I have to challenge them to lean in and go deep.
“I’m curious about what others of you are thinking and feeling,” I say. Nobody moves. Scanning their faces, I give them a push: “I’m mindful that this isn’t easy, but if you really want to stop the bleeding, we have to dare to be honest, and stay connected to our feelings and each other, even as it gets difficult. This is really an exercise in being brave and having faith that healing is possible. So I’m inviting you to take a risk. What are your thoughts and feelings about what Nia said?”
Mateo takes this challenge on. He says, “Nia, it makes me sad that you’ve been hurting like that. You don’t deserve it. I feel you, especially as the only Latino on the R&D team, and one of only a few in this entire company. I feel like people either see me too much, like I’m trapped in a fishbowl, or they don’t see me at all.”
A full minute passes, and Angela unmutes her mic. “This is very difficult to hear,” she says timidly. “I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know any of this. Nia, you’re right, we can’t have a team when people aren’t feeling respected. I’m sorry for my part in that.”
At this admission, some people seem to soften a bit, but Mateo and others still look unconvinced. My read on it, having done DEI trainings for the past 17 years, is he knows from experience that momentary awareness won’t heal deep wounds.
And yet, I hope this could be a beginning for this work-family. Angela, as if she too recognizes this, continues to talk. “I’m sorry that it took bringing in someone from the outside for us to have this conversation. I and the rest of the leadership team must do better.”
The meeting goes on, and we unpack more times when employees felt misunderstood, invalidated, or discriminated against. I explain to them how important it is to remember that the burden of vulnerability often falls on the marginalized, no matter how equitable a team thinks it might be. I feel encouraged that a few people ask to explore how they may have unintentionally contributed to racial hurt.
As the conversation deepens and continues, people visibly relax. I suggest to them that this weakening of boundaries is actually showing me the strength of their team. Just as in therapy, people’s willingness to traverse uncertainty and be affected by one another’s vulnerability signals true bravery.
"Addressing and healing from centuries-old traumas that still influence the ways we relate to one another is a productive use of our work time." PHOTO © ISTOCK / FIZKES
Since they’d all been trying hard to be honest, I decided that now it was my turn. “Like many families I see in my therapy practice, you all were hiding some skeletons in your team closet,” I said. “I just didn’t know how many!”
This garnered some nervous laughter.
“But then you started to listen to each other, believed when someone said they were hurting, and offered a kind, affirming word. Observing that gave me the most important data point about this team. Despite all the missteps and hurts, you all feel passionate about your work and about fighting to become a team that truly hears and respects each other.”
I see much nodding and a palpable sense of relief, including from Mateo. Nia takes a relaxed sip from her coffee mug. This is the kind of reflective consolidation that I offer to families in therapy as they struggle to work through their pain, find hope, and not lose sight of their larger goals.
Problem solving in our modern workplaces requires not only creativity and ingenuity, but cooperation and collaboration. To this end, I believe mental health practitioners could play a larger role in the work world. As I see it, the ability to work with strong and vulnerable emotions, communicate effectively, and repair interpersonal ruptures is vital to the success and productivity of any team or organization.
This doesn’t always mean that our work in this setting will draw heavily on therapeutic training. In fact, I started consulting work to do less traditional therapy, not more! But while conventional DEI consultation has typically been defined by didactic training, conceptual and structural planning, and tips for sticky situations, adding a therapeutic element can be immensely helpful when addressing strong emotions and long-standing wounds.
By the third and final meeting with this tech company, the team is exhibiting a different energy—an intimate kind of levity. As we wait for everyone to log on, Mateo suddenly stands up to reveal that he’s wearing a pair of much too small, bright green, fuzzy bedroom slippers. “My three-year-old daughter dressed me in these this morning,” he confesses, shaking his head.
In a chain reaction, others join Mateo in a spontaneous show-and-tell. Angela says in the chat that she’s on mute because she’s yelling at her kids. Tom turns off his virtual background of a Caribbean beachfront to expose his unmade bed and a pile of dirty clothes next to an overflowing hamper. And Nia positions her camera on her five-year-old son, who’s on the floor next to her, playing with Legos. She says, “James, say hi to mommy’s friends.”
Still in his Spider-Man pajamas, James shows off what looks like the contours of an emerging race car. Everyone rushes to respond. “Wow, that’s so cool!” “Aww, you’re so cute.” “Are you helping mommy today?”
These opening moments only last a few minutes, but they’re poignant. No doubt, this group is still awkward with the whole “being vulnerable stuff,” as one team member put it, but they’re getting better. Best of all, the story they get to tell themselves about who they are is changing.
In the richly diverse world that we live and work, DEI trainings and interventions ought to be ongoing and mandatory, not some knee-jerk reaction when problems arise. It’s not only important on a sociopolitical level: it can be deeply therapeutic. Audaciously addressing and healing from centuries-old, unresolved traumas that still organize our societies and influence the ways we relate to one another is a productive and meaningful use of our worktime.
As the demand for DEI trainers and consultants in the workplace increases, family therapists may prove to be an invaluable resource. The deliberate marriage of DEI consultation and family therapy could even usher in a new area of expertise—think of it as therapy at work—that could help us all get closer to the kind of equitable and inclusive environment we want and need.
PHOTO © ISTOCK/LAURENCE DUTTON
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