Laura Petrolino

How to Reduce Bias in Communication: A Communicator’s Responsibility

By: Laura Petrolino | February 14, 2020 | 
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bias in communicationBias is everywhere.

You have it.

I have it.

We all have it. 

Understanding it and being self-aware about our own biases is important for everyone.

But as professional communicators, we have an even bigger responsibility to manage bias in communication.

For ourselves, our organizations, and our customers. 

This week we asked our community of experts to weigh in on this very important topic.

Their thoughts are helpful, thoughtful, and further confirm what an important—and challenging—discussion this is. 

Don’t think you have bias? 

The reality is, if you don’t think you have bias, then you most likely have the worst type: the ignorant kind.

This means bias rules you vs. you working to be constantly aware of it.

If that’s the case, this discussion is even more important. 

Cognitive Bias in Communication

Let’s start by setting a foundation around cognitive bias and what it is. 

Cognitive biases affect the way people process information and make decisions.

We often think of bias as being bad, but it’s best if we don’t put a label on it as either bad or good.

It just is.

It’s a normal cognitive function, like forming a habit or problem-solving. 

It developed to help us address four problems:

  • Too much information
  • Not enough meaning
  • Need to act fast
  • What we should remember and what to discard

Just like habit formation, however, it can often be applied in negative ways.

For example, “fake news” is able to spread and amplify so quickly because of cognitive bias

This is where self-awareness, empathy, and honestly hard work and attention come in. 

Seek First to Understand

I wrote about 14 cognitive biases that will affect your communications plan last year and Gini wrote about the two she thinks are most challenging for communicators

Christopher Penn recommends two sites: Your.Bias.is and Yourlogicalfallacy.is, which are both excellent. 

These resources will help you become aware of the bias around you and most importantly of your own. 

As Christopher says: 

The first and most vital step is understanding what your biases are. If you lack that self-awareness, you can’t do anything to mitigate it because you don’t know there’s a problem. Nothing makes me roll my eyes more than a corporate statement about the importance of diversity and seeing the About Us/Leadership page be people of entirely one generation, gender, and race.

And this happens ALLLL the time, especially with “diversity and inclusion” being such a trendy buzzword right now.

I can’t tell you how many companies tout diversity as an organizational value and their leadership team page shows all white men. 

An Exercise in Bias Awareness

Lee Jay Berman suggests this great exercise to help us take an honest inventory of our own biases:

List five things that bias you, personally, against a person you have met before. Then list five things that tend to bias you toward a person you haven’t met yet. Next, look at those 10 things, and see if they fall into categories: actions, behaviors, appearances, attitudes, etc. If they do, that will tell you what your default screening mechanism (or lens) is (visual, behavioral, personality).  Next, do the “against” items, when viewed together, remind you of anyone in your life?

Often, we take traits from someone we have a bad relationship with, or no relationship at all, perhaps in-laws, or a sibling we don’t talk to anymore, and the survival part of our brain looks for those traits in others, as a sign to stay away. Then, look at the “toward” list, and see if that looks like anyone you know.

In most cases, that list can tend to look like ourselves, which can make sense because if those are traits we value in a person, we all generally try to embody those things, and shape ourselves in that image. So, it should look like us!  Or at least what we’re trying to become. Once you know where your biases are coming from, it’s easier to be aware of them.

Expose Yourself to a Variety of People and Viewpoints

We tend to surround ourselves with people just like us.

That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it is a problem in helping us be aware of bias.

And it prevents us from building greater empathy around how other people, people different from us, experience the world. 

This is sometimes easier said then done, especially if you don’t live in a bigger, more diverse city.

I say this living in Maine, where often the only diversity in a room is different types of Bean boots.

So you have to be intentional about it. 

Seek out a variety of news sources, review websites focused on people different than you are, and look for diversity and inclusion resources, courses, and webinars. There are a ton of them out there now. 

Care enough to learn about other’s experiences and accept that your own unique experience isn’t universal. 

Intercultural Learning Starts with You

Again, self-reflection is important to this process. 

Intercultural learning coach Emily Mosby explains: 

To mitigate (since you can’t avoid it altogether) your own bias, it’s important to commit to developing skills and awareness in terms of cultural perspectives and differences. Most critically, individuals need to dig deep and learn about their own cultural backgrounds and how they have shaped the values and beliefs driving their actions. This is most common for those from dominant or privileged backgrounds, because they are raised to believe they are culturally “normal”. 

Training in the area of intercultural agility is one of the best investments for avoiding preventable bias. By investing in professional development in this area, organizations demonstrate to their staff the importance of overcoming bias—and tie bias awareness and prevention to employees’ professional goals and success.

Emily also suggested the book Managing Across Cultures by Solomon and Schell as a great place for teams to start.

It has cultural dimension quizzes where each employee can self-assess their values and perspectives.

Part of accepting that your viewpoint isn’t universal is then acknowledging you probably struggle to judge what may or may not be problematic in your messages or content. 

Bias in Communication: Consider the REACH Screen

After you open yourself up to this awareness and seek to constantly improve your framework of knowledge around bias and diversity issues, the next step is to have a process that helps you apply this new awareness. 

I love the REACH Equity screen. This stands for: representation, experience, accessibility, compensation, and harm reduction. 

The REACH screen asks you to consider the following areas of diversity when reviewing content:

      • culture 
      • religion 
      • gender, transgender, and non-binary
      • people with disabilities 
      • those with different income levels
      • people of different generations 
      • people from different types of communities (rural/urban/suburban)
      • education level
      • family situations and choices 

I’m going to break down each of its five categories. 

Representation and Experience

Questions to ask: 

  • How does the issue affect people of diverse identities?
  • Am I the appropriate person/organization to discuss this issue based on my skills, life experiences, background, culture, or expertise?

This means it’s important to have peer review, especially in areas or when speaking to audiences with different perspectives than your norm. 

And if you are not the appropriate person to speak about an issue, pass it on to someone who is. 

If you are a man speaking to women, ask a woman to review.

If you are a white person discussing issues important to people of color, ask for a person of color to review.

This type of experience appropriate peer-review will catch things you wouldn’t notice on your own.

Not for any fault other than you are who you are. 

Katie Robbert follows this method:  

Peer review—I almost never publish something live that I haven’t had someone else look at it. I’m too close to it so I need someone else to pick my work apart to make sure I haven’t introduced bias or I’m not perpetuating my own unconscious bias.

 Teresa Valerio Parrot adds:

While it can be reflex as communications professionals to trust our instincts and experiences, the easiest way to identify biases is to ask the opinions of diversity experts about your language choices and references. I have benefited from receiving honest feedback on the words I’ve chosen and the historical context of language and use of words I’ve taken for granted. 

I love this final evaluation from Emily Mosby:

When creating messages, think about reading the words aloud to a room full of people unlike you. Is there anything you’d be embarrassed or uncertain about saying out loud? 

Is Our Content Accessible to Everyone?

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • How often do we use jargon, buzzwords, or acronyms? 
  • Do we have the curse of knowledge and assume something is common sense when really it needs further explanation. 
  • Are there links to further explanations when topics might need more background to provide full value?

This is a big one and as communicators one of the easiest for us to manage.

Even if we start simply by saying no to buzzwords and acronyms. 

Chris Williams sumes it up best:

Technical fields have acronyms. Crazy amounts of acronyms. Acronyms that mutate into new words, which then become part of other acronyms, like some digital Russian doll. Which makes it easy to assume that everyone else knows the acronyms too. Common assumption, I know, but in tech these can get complex fast. I have to watch for acronyms and remind co-workers that our customers may not know what SQL is, or a REST API, or a Pulse VPN..

And Heather Feimster adds:

Sometimes bias is as simple as unnecessarily difficult readability in an effort to sound smarter. I’m constantly shortening and dividing sentences, simplifying sentence structure, and overall making very complex topics easier for the reader to follow

This is sooooo true.

If you take the most notable authors of all time, you’ll find their words are clear, crisp, and not overly dramatic or fluffy.

They are a medium to tell a story, not a story in and of themselves.

Word choice matters. 

Does Our Content Cause Harm?

Questions to Ask:

  • Are we unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes?
  • Does our language reinforce gender binaries? (Using “he or she” when we could just use “they”)
  • Do we make generalizations about groups of people? (“Millennials are so entitled.”)
  • Do we use language that stigmatizes medical conditions and mental health conditions? (“You’re crazy,” “I’m super OCD,” “I have total PTSD about X.”)
  • Do we use cliches or catch-phrases that stereotype or stigmatize?

This one is the most challenging in many ways because it’s all about habit.

Forms of speech, things we are used to saying and don’t consider as the bias or assumptions. 

For example, I struggle a lot with “crazy”. I say “wow, that’s crazy…,” “OMG, that’s insane,” and the like often. I also still struggle with gender assumptions.

I try really hard, but I’ll normally catch myself halfway through and get tongue-tied, and then feel awkward and embarrassed. 

In some ways, these things are like learning a different language, but it’s a language we must know, otherwise, we do ourselves, our organizations, and our communities a disservice. 

I’m pretty sure most people don’t want to hurt others with assumptions.

And I’m also pretty sure at one time or another all of us have been hurt by other’s assumptions.

So I try to remember these personal experiences as I work through changing my habits around certain language. 

Reducing Bias in Communication: It’s a Process

Do you feel overwhelmed? 

Reducing bias in communication can feel overwhelming.

It can seem like a no-win situation, too. I know.

This is something I think about a lot.

Both from a cognitive bias standpoint and a diversity and inclusion standpoint. 

But like anything you just need to start somewhere.

And as you become more aware of the biases around you it becomes easier to work to reduce and be cognitive of it in your work. 

It’s not easy, but it is important.

And as communicators, it’s an ethical responsibility. 

What would you add here?

How do you work to reduce bias in communication in your work?

Where do you struggle the most? 

Join this really interesting discussion in the Spin Sucks community of experts.

It’s free and there is no other place you can network with the brightest minds in communication (and me, I’m there too).

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.