Deep diversity involves such things as the different types of skills, information, and approaches to problem solving that members [of a group] bring to the table, which have little to do with sex, race, and other demographic characteristics.

 Deep diversity has the potential to improve group problem solving because it increases the problem-solving approaches and capabilities of the entire team.

 However, it can be a challenge for group members who think differently to learn to work together.  Yet work together they must, if the team is to succeed.  Members must learn to develop a team identity that somehow encompasses their individual diversity.  (Galanes and Adams 105)


Important conversations about diversity are crossing spaces and places.  Some of the most provocative elements of these dialogues have to do with challenges to cultural perspectives.  Whether women in the tech start-up world challenging gender stereotypes, women in Hollywood speaking out through the hashtag #MeToo, or Ta-Nehisi Coates describing the legacy of white supremacy in American politics, the concept of diversity is fresh, intense, and around every corner.

Fresh and intense also describes how individuals and groups are working to build more inclusive cultures.  Lisa Miller of New York Magazine reports on the work Narrative 4 is doing:

At the heart of the Narrative 4 process is what the group calls “story exchange.” In pairs, participants share personal stories, taking turns, listening to one another. Then, in a second step, one partner takes on the other’s story as his own, telling it in front of the group in the first person. This last part is crucial. Narrative 4 insists that part of the process of transformative empathy is fully taking on another’s story — using the pronoun I, embodying, for a few moments, someone else. Narrative 4 has organized dozens of these exchanges, including one for Jewish and Arab teenagers and one for survivors of the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But this was the organization’s first foray into such volatile terrain as asking people to speak directly to their experiences with guns, a test of whether its empathy-building methods might work on such a deep emotional and philosophical divide.

Miller unfolds the events of different partners embodying the story of another’s experience with guns; an embodiment that intentionally challenges the ideological views of the speaker.  In one case, there seemed to be radical transformation.  One man holding strong belief in gun rights had to narrate the story of a mother losing her youngest daughter to gun violence and the mother had to narrate what made owning guns so important to this man.

Nothing else that happened that weekend begins to compare to those 13 minutes, when Carolyn Tuft and Todd Underwood took possession of one another’s stories. Other storytellers were sensitive, respectful, perceptive, and earnest — but none started out so far apart, ideologically, so none was challenged, in quite the same way, to reach for the same level of empathic generosity. If Samaria Rice had made me wonder at the utility of empathy as an implement for change, Todd and Carolyn proved that radical empathy is at least possible. They were shape-shifters. They became each other. And in that moment, the videographers were crying. The organizers, who have seen versions of this a hundred times before, were crying. No one in the room that day will ever forget what they saw.

Reading the stories of the Narrative 4 project made me cry, too.  As a mother of two boys, I felt the deep pain of Carolyn, losing her youngest.  Tom also had painful reasons associated with his need to own guns.  There is no winning of an argument, here.

Perhaps most telling from the Narrative 4 project was what didn’t happen, what didn’t resolve.  Some of the participants left the process because alternate narratives were overwhelming to embody and some pairs broke into fierce debates around how their stories were told.  The most transformed, Todd and Carolyn, still only changed their attitudes toward guns in small ways.  “And yet, Todd can’t go back to exactly who he was before. Carolyn’s story is part of him now. He’s a gun enthusiast who knows how it feels to be a mass-shooting victim.”  Lisa Miller for New York Magazine notes:

But identity is a fractious, multilayered thing, and it’s possible to use empathy to redraw the circles around “we.” We are Democrats and Republicans, black people and white people, women and men, parents and children. Our silos may look like fortresses, but they are, in fact, porous and intersecting. Empathy can help illuminate those nexuses.

At the same time, what if it was possible to accomplish the same goals of the Narrative 4 project, building empathy by showing the humanity of those that think, believe, and act differently in smaller, more incremental ways?  What if deep diversity– which is about looking for common ground and then using that common ground to build understanding, compassion, and collaboration–could be achieved in the little interactions that make up daily life?  How might deep diversity be built through everyday communication?

Anyone running training on diversity and inclusion in today’s workplace will tell you that getting people to the table and then keeping them at the table are the keys to more civil work environments.   Just a few weeks ago I attended Seattle Tech Startup week and listened to a wonderful presentation on diversity and inclusion.  The heart of the presentation rallied around the concept of awareness equaling choice, and I started to wonder how that very idea could be unpacked through communication principles.  What does it mean to create awareness, to make something invisible, visible?  What does choice mean, and how does choice operate in relation to diversity?  As one trained in rhetorical studies, I started to think about choices and how people use language strategically to influence an audience.  I thought of the concept of rhetorical status by Cal Logue and Eugene Miller, a concept about positioning and self-in-relation.

Rhetorical status is about human interaction and helps us “take our bearings in communicative interactions” (20); these bearings are not “fixed or rigid,” for it [rhetorical status] changes as communicators reposition themselves” (20).  One of the ways I explain this concept to my students is through my personal stories about meeting people in different situations.  Rhetorical status operates in the mundane world, such as walking into a grocery store and seeing someone I know.  In that moment, I have a wide array of communication choices.  I can duck into another aisle in order to avoid the person because I do not know what to say.  I can wave from a distance and hope the person does not want a conversation.  I can approach this person and ask how he/she is doing; when asked the same question, I have more choices about how to respond regarding my personal status and whether or not I want to disclose a certain amount of information to the other party.  The choices I make in the presentation of self reveal how I see myself, how I think the other person sees me, and how I want the other person to see me.  The idea of rhetorical status takes on more nuances the larger the power distance.  For example, meeting a celebrity at a hotel where I once worked as an intern carries different rhetorical opportunities.  I once served coffee (working through room service) to a legendary singer, and even though he tried to engage me in communication about the weather, I could not speak a word.  I describe this moment as being “starstruck,” but it also reflects perceived power differences and thus different rhetorical statuses.  At the time, I viewed myself with a low rhetorical status and thus did not believe I had much to say.  However, the legendary musician could enter the conversation with whomever he wishes; he could be kind, he could be disrespectful, his high rhetorical status provided him with more options.

Essentially, then, rhetorical status is about the choices one makes in relation to others, how we “take our bearings in communicative interactions” (Logue and Miller 20). In terms of deep diversity, people are accomplishing a lot more in small ways than perhaps realized.  If rhetorical status is about how one positions the self in every little conversation, then there is a lot of power to disrupt, shape, and create in those lived moments.   Within mediation, parties position themselves in relation to each other to maintain or even create an edge in negotiations.  Mediators help parties in this positioning, expanding perceptions and facilitating more pathways for open communication.

Take this example with a mediator facilitating a case between two neighbors:

Gaye: What makes mediation successful?

Mediator:  Well, when people are willing at the table to make themselves vulnerable, and to reach out and share.  Let’s take two men, it’s very hard, these two men want to stick to issues, facts, those kinds of things.  So when they’re willing to open up their heart a little and talk openly about the impact the other person had on him.  Often times it creates a hardship for the other person as being this: ‘I’m in charge.  I’m in command. I’m not affected by anything.’

Gaye: So when it creates that hardship, what happens?

Mediator: Well you just see the bodies start to relax; their tone is a little different.  And it could be anything from: ‘I didn’t realize that affected you.’ […]

But to have an order in place that meant that after thirty years he could no longer be the captain of his block party because he couldn’t be in the same [area as his neighbor], he had to watch through a window […] that went right to his core.

One man was accusing the other:  he didn’t want his children around this man because he was high all the time; but he did not know that this man was dying; you know, what the pot was for.  It’s those kinds of things where all of a sudden they can’t hold on to what they originally thought because there is another piece that gives them a better perspective and understanding of what’s going on for this person.

Gaye: So what do you do in those moments as the mediator?  What’s your role?

Mediator: When that happens? I’m quiet.  I’m very quiet.  And I just sort of let it resonate with everyone. […] I really want them to take it in.  And I want what they have just learned to have time to really, you know, maybe change their perspective…the brain to get ahold of it…

Sometimes mediators will take more action to build on the common ground shared between parties.  With the same mediator as above, here is another example between two sisters:

Mediator:  I really wanted them not to say, ‘Okay, everything’s forgiven,’ […] this has been going on for years. You can’t just all of a sudden agree not to [act a certain way], but, what are some baby steps?  So they agreed to meet for coffee, a certain coffee shop, just for an hour, and what they agreed to do was to have a conversation that if it started to go sideways—because they were really good at pushing one another’s buttons around boyfriends and stuff like that.

(Mediator asking parties): ‘So when that happens what do you want to be able to say to one another? Say I’m getting flooded or I’m really not liking where this conversation’s going?’

They made this agreement that was very, very detailed.  What they could say (and if they couldn’t), they’ll be back; we’ll try again next Friday.  You know that kind of thing.

Mediators are improvisational artists: making choices that come into view depending upon communication context, parties at the table, goals, and needs.  Don’t get me wrong, mediation processes structure how mediators facilitate conversations, but mediators use commonalities and connections that only become available in the lived moment to help people take small incremental steps forward.

Returning to the concept of deep diversity:

Deep diversity involves such things as the different types of skills, information, and approaches to problem solving that members [of a group] bring to the table, which have little to do with sex, race, and other demographic characteristics. (Galanes and Adams 105)

Galanes and Adams argue that cultural variables are important elements to consider in the building of teams, variables such as power, gender, ethnicity, and more.  Their argument for deep diversity is a “both/and” instead of an “either/or” argument.  Deep diversity is about the common ground that is available to people in every conversation that often expands beyond cultural categories.   At the same time, deep diversity resists polarization because it is rooted in the complexities of lived experience.  From the above mediation examples, the question of what it means to be a neighbor or a parent or a sister or a friend comes into view.  What are common rallying points that allow for more conversation rather than less?  How does one stay engaged (or perhaps re-engage) in order to find healthier partnerships, teams, or communities?

One of the most amazing articles I read in a class bringing together feminism and communication was by Maria C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman.   Lugones, a Latin-American woman and Spelman, an African-American woman made an argument for how women of color could partner with white/Anglo women in the feminist movement.

So the motive of friendship remains as both the only appropriate and understandable motive for white/Anglo feminists[…].  If you enter the task out of friendship with us, then you will be moved to attain the appropriate reciprocity of care for your and our wellbeing as whole beings, you will have a stake in us and in our world, you will be moved to satisfy the need for reciprocity of understanding that will enable you to follow us in our experiences as we are able to follow you in yours. (506)

For friendship to work, there has to be effort on all sides; and power is often distributed evenly, shoulder-to-shoulder, heading in the same direction.  Deep diversity embraces the same knowledge and understands that people can’t undo years of cultural learning in a short amount of time.  Even the most ambitious projects, such as Narrative 4’s conversations on gun ownership, can only take people so far.  However, the communicative elements that make up every little conversation give people more choices in what to say and how to say it.  Awareness does equal choice.


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The First White President.” The Atlantic. October 2017, Accessed 5 October 2017.

Galanes, Gloria J. and Adams, Katherine. Effective Group Discussion: Theory and Practice.  14th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013.

Logue, Cal M. and Eugene F. Miller. “Rhetorical Status: A Study of Its Origins, Functions, and Consequences.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81 (1) (1995): 20-47.

Lugones, Maria C. and Spelman, Elizabeth V. “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman’s Voice’.” Feminism and Philosophy, Eds.  Nancy Tuanna and Rosemarie Tong.  Routledge, 1995. 494-507.

Mediator Two. Personal Interview.  20 March 2015.

Miller, Lisa. “An Experiment in Empathy.” New York Magazine. 26 December 2016, Accessed 5 October 2017.