Diversity in the workplace, if not properly respected, can lead to serious clashes that may threaten your company’s success as well as hurt the people involved. Diversity training can be uncomfortable for your employees. It challenges people’s deeply held preconceptions, and some people oppose it on ideological grounds. This discomfort can make the atmosphere tense and undermine your efforts, but you can protect against this with some thoughtful icebreakers, promoting honesty and engagement among participants.

Revealing Common Ground

Everybody eats, even if many prefer different food. You can point that out as a way of introducing an icebreaker exercise designed to reveal common ground. Have your employees talk about their lives in some way. Start things off yourself. The topic might be pets, hobbies, games, memories from school or personal ambitions. Choose a topic based on what participants seem to care about. As people talk about their lives, they might come to realize some of the things they share in common; when that happens, they are more likely to extend their respect and friendship to those with whom they also have strong differences.

Illustrating Negative Mind-Sets

Have each of your employees choose a short piece of music they like and play it for the group. If you have more than four or five people, break into multiple groups. At the end of the first song, surprise the group by having the listeners say one thing they didn’t like about it. As other employees take their turns, now knowing what to expect, note to yourself whether their behaviors change and how. When everyone has played a song, explain that looking for negativity in other people’s lives doesn’t benefit anybody. It just makes everyone more guarded and cynical. Describe the changes you saw in people’s behaviors as the exercise played out, if there were any, and relate them to the lesson. Then encourage participants to try to look for the things they like in others at work, reaping the rewards that come from building one another up rather than tearing one another down.

Reflecting on Failure

Ask employees to take turns revealing something they’ve failed at in life and explaining why they made that mistake. After everyone has shared, employ the feedback and the verbiage they used regarding their past failures to introduce the topic of being wrong. Diversity training needs to give some attention to the specific ways in which people most commonly suffer mistreatment because of their differences. This includes traits such as gender, weight, race, sexual orientation, religious status and mental or physical disability. Explain to participants that mistreating people because of these traits is wrong and always leads to failure in the workplace by causing unhappiness, undermining confidence and fomenting enmity. Have employees go around again and explain something they’re going to do differently moving forward to be on guard against discrimination in themselves and others. Be explicit in reminding people that they can always come to you if they have questions or problems on this topic.

Valuing Diversity Training

Diversity training educates people that diversity exists and teaches people to be mindful of one another’s differences. From there, it helps people feel safe about being true to themselves in the workplace. As you go about your icebreaker exercises, be careful not to make people feel compelled to discuss issues they consider private, and let people opt out from an exercise if they wish.