walking path in forest in autumn

Belonging Conversations, a Beginning

By Ken Giglio, Principal of Mindful Leadership Consulting

We know from science that the desire to belong is a core human need that is bred in our bones. We are social by nature. When we come together for our jobs this need doesn’t diminish, so it is essential that belonging is nurtured for us to do our best work. This is especially relevant as companies struggle to create new workplace norms that bridge in-office with virtual environments. Belonging is a key driver of engagement, and without the felt sense of being valued and welcomed for who we are, we lose connection and either move on or stay and suffer.

How do leaders and coaches create and maintain spaces where people feel they belong?

How will we begin and remain in Belonging Conversations?

Looking at our lives before we become a role—CEO, VP, CHRO, Principal, Executive Coach, HR Partner, etc.—is a start. Where did we come from? What experiences shaped us into who we are today?

As lead executive coach and supervisor for Mindful Leadership, I’m committed to the principles of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging and want to see them present in all the work we do. I express these intentions, which I deem worthy and good for me and others; however, my awareness and behaviors have too often lagged behind my intentions.

This gap between my intentions and my behaviors makes sense when I consider my experience growing up as a white boy in a white community, with little exposure to the real, diverse world. This was my experience, not judged good or bad, just as it was. It limited my awareness not simply because I am white, it narrowed what I could see and experience because all those around me were white.

I was advantaged, though not privileged and fortunate that my father, who wore a blue collar to work, openly expressed his values in front of his children—disgust at Blacks being beaten by police in the 60s South and elation when Martin Luther King and others marched to face down racism.

I was advantaged again beyond my understanding living and thriving in Greenwich Village in the late 80s with my wife and toddler. Gay men walked the same streets as my son and I, the strong holding up their friends, who were sickened and soon gone from AIDS.

My personal, family, and community experiences, my history, are what I carry with me, conscious or not into all my conversations. Our history, the story of lives up to this point, informs who we are, how we see others, and how we enter into dialogue. This is among the first things to remember, to be mindful of, in the presence of others, especially those with whom we don’t share a similar background.

To clear the ground for belonging conversations means practicing mindfulness, which is remembering to be awake and aware, without judgment, to what is here and now before us. This returning to what is right in front of us gives us our best chance to see our biases and prejudices in real time as they come up in our minds.

It’s worth asking ourselves often – “what about my history inclines me to feel like I belong and to invite others to belong?” Inclusion is the critical starting point for diverse groups to come together. Belonging is the deep, felt sense that we are seen and heard. People are listening to us with interest and respect for who we are and for what we say.

I reflect a lot on how coach professionals can show up as wise and compassionate partners with their clients and organizations. I also think and talk a good deal about the role coaches play in creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace and world.

I have recently had two experiences in groups, both where I played a leadership role, where content was presented and exercises used, that were not inclusive and microaggressions resulted.

A coach colleague was hurt in one instance, and the other situation led to exclusion, and, as the leader of our coach community, I assumed responsibility and apologized for the pain inflicted. Fortunately, our colleague was brave enough to name the event for what it was and to invite and challenge me and others to learn from the experience.

I have reflected on these events within myself and with others to understand my gaps in awareness, skill, and courage when it comes to truly being inclusive and fostering belonging. It has been a humbling experience as I slowly wake up to my conditioned responses and biases, often supported by systemic and structural racism.

I am fortunate to have been graced with understanding and patient colleagues of color and those different from me in varied ways, who have shared their experiences of what it looks and feels like to be excluded and worse. I’m grateful to have them as fellow learners, and I am grateful for all our coach and leader colleagues, many of whom have accumulated hard-earned wisdom in this space.

We have entered a new phase of consciousness raising around racial inequity here in the United States following the public tragedy of George Floyd and others and the violence befalling Asian-Americans. This raising of our individual and collective consciousness will take many, many belonging conversations, for it is in group dialogue that we have our best chance to become wiser coaches, leaders, people, who are more “mindful,” inclusive, and compassionate.

In belonging conversations, we are not looking to solve anything; we simply show up to share who we are and how we are in relation to each other, with acknowledgment and appreciation for difference. Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet” says it best:

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.