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  1. Blog
  2. Allyship
  3. March 23, 2021

How to Hold Space for Your Coworkers (& Why You Should)

Listening is an act of allyship

Chair and radio in a very white room
Photo courtesy of Liana Mikah

Numerous companies have made public statements, committing to advocacy, vowing to amplify  diverse voices and build initiatives that ensure a more inclusive environment, but how will this lead to real, meaningful, and long-lasting change if individual employees aren’t participating? 

Allyship has become a popular term—and for good reason. Inclusivity requires advocacy; it requires members of majority communities to not just support the mission, but actually see it through. 

If you’re a member of a majority community, you may be wondering: How can you become a better ally? How can you listen and hold space for your coworkers? And in practice, what does this really look like? Do your individual efforts make a difference?

Read more: 3 Essential Steps to Allyship in Times of Crisis

Allyship only matters when there’s action

Kimya Nuru Dennis, PhD, founder and owner of 365 Diversity, believes the term “ally,” in and of itself, is problematic when associated with members of majority communities—and reasonably so. 

“[The] catchword [allyship] allows white people, men, cisgender people, heterosexuals, able-health people, religious majority, and wealthy people to claim to support underserved and underrepresented people when, instead, there is often a lack of consistent support and consistent action,” says Nuru Dennis.

Claiming to be an ally, even if you have the right intentions, doesn’t necessarily make you one. In order to build a more inclusive, more welcoming environment for your colleagues, you must be willing to learn—and unlearn. You must be willing to listen, without judgement, without opinion. You must be willing to put in the daily work to initiate change. Change is uncomfortable, but discomfort breeds growth.

Read more: 9 TED Talks That Will Make You a Better Ally

How to hold space for coworkers

“The goal of an ally should be to encourage, stand beside in solidarity, and offer emotional support to colleagues when they ask for help,” says Sara So, who cofounded The Ally League with Kesha Rodgers. “Good allies do not question experiences or the emotions involved.”

Understand that each coworker, regardless of the marginalized community they belong to, has an individual identity, experience, and perspective. Do not contextualize their experience or offer comparisons. Do not diminish the feelings they express. Simply listen, with openness, and offer your support. 

Read more: Introduction to Intersectionality: 8 Ways Identity Affects Employment

One of the best things you can do is focus on building a relationship of trust and mutual understanding, So says. If you wish to be a better ally to a coworker, she says you can:

Tarra Bates-Duford, PhD, and founder of Family Matters Counseling Group, says women can also be allies to other women by taking the following actions:

Read more: Better Sponsorship: 6 Times to Speak Her Name

Being inclusive in the workplace matters

“Intentional activities that provide connection and personalization [can] lead to increases in morale, productivity, and retention,” says Anu Mandapati, PCC, CTPC, VP of Inclusion with Purpose, North America

If you’re committed to holding space for your coworkers, you must be willing to have hard conversations. You must be willing to take a stance with fellow members of your majority community, even when they oppose your words, and especially then. To be an ally, you must be willing to recognize the intricitices of your privilege and perspective.

“It is important to give space to individuals of marginalized communities at work because sometimes their feelings, opinions, and perspectives are not recognized or addressed,” says Bates-Duford. 

Members of majority communities, which Nuru Dennis calls “power majorities,” must also challenge the notion that the space is theirs to hold. “Power majorities need to challenge and dismantle their own demographic-based power and dismantle the demographic-based power of other people within their demographic category. That is the action.”

The South African word “Ubuntu” means “I am because we are,” Mandapati says. “We are all intrinsically tied to one another. I lift you up so we’re all lifted up. My success is tied to your success.”

Efforts must be measurable 

“What is needed is consistent support and consistent action even when it is inconvenient,” says Nuru Dennis. “People need to demand measurable and annually assessable changes to policies and behaviors.”

One of the ways employers can measure their efforts in diversity and inclusion, Teresa Hopke, CEO of Talking Talent, suggests, is to ask employees the following (note: make it anonymous):

“Measuring allyship can be difficult as the concept of ‘successful’ allyship is a moving target. When you are first encouraging allyship, remember—the goal is not perfection. In fact, the initial expectation should be imperfection,” says Hopke. “What really makes allyship a strong process is the fact that it is personal. Every individual has unique experiences in life and views the world in different ways.”

If you want to support your colleagues, be willing to listen and accept. Don’t get defensive and don’t get offended when you're told that you said something offensive (even if you didn’t know it was offensive). Be willing to acknowledge your own faults—and address your fellow majority community members. It’s not going to be easy or comfortable, but it will make a difference.

“Allyship is a journey,” says Hopke. “You can’t skip to the end.”

About our sources

Dr. Kimya Nuru Dennis is founder and owner of 365 Diversity. As a social-community activist, sociologist and criminologist, Nuru Dennis is invested in educating, training, evaluating, and assessing for-profit organizations and non-profit organizations.

Sara So is a cofounder of The Ally League, wife and mom of three children, and biotechnology professional-turned entrepreneur. 

Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford has engaged in extensive work and research on familial relationships, family trauma, and dysfunctions. She is known for her work with traumatic experience and symptom re-emergence. With nearly 20 years in the field of behavioral sciences, she has been instrumental in her work with stabilizing families, helping individuals and families navigate the challenges of mental illness, as well as victims of abuse/ trauma, reprocess the memory of the trauma in a manners that no longer paralyzes nor interferes with daily functioning. She is an accomplished author of children’s books covering topics such as, conduct disorder, ADHD, parenting a child with special needs, and trauma.

Anu Mandapati is a certified leadership, team and wellbeing coach with 20 years of diversity, inclusion, leadership and organizational development experience. She specializes in coaching teams and organizations to increase their diverse talent pool, develop more inclusive staff at all levels, and increase performance and retention by creating work cultures where people feel like they can bring all of who they are to work and succeed. Her leadership tips, tools and strategies have appeared in various publications including Inc., Forbes, Fortune and Money.

As the CEO of Talking Talent, Inc., Teresa Hopke leads the U.S. business and steers the company’s strategic direction. Deep expertise in the areas of inclusion with purpose, women in leadership, and working parent support allow Hopke and her team to unlock potential in people and organizations by helping create inclusive cultures that drive better business results. Prior to joining the organization, Hopke was an SVP with Life Meets Work where she launched their coaching and women’s leadership practices. Before moving into the world of consulting, she led retention and engagement strategies at RSM in her role as Senior Director of National Talent Management. Her innovative coaching and culture programs led the company to prestigious recognition and awards.

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Sarah Sheppard

Contributor

Sarah Sheppard is an account manager at a feminist communications firm. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and contributes regularly to Verywell Mind. She writes on mental health, women's issues, and redefining success.

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