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Reduce Bias via the "Magic If" Strategy
by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

What might Lucas, a black man who was the beneficiary of Affirmative Action, have in common with Angie, a beautiful woman blessed with a lovely face, gorgeous body, and great taste in clothes?

What might Henry, a native-born white American who feels lost at his new job with a Chinese-owned design firm, have in common with Mai, a Vietnamese woman who struggles to find her way in the maze of corporate America?

Lucas, Angie, Henry, and Mai could not be much more different and, yet, they are very much alike in terms of the challenges and pain they have faced. Lucas and Angie, for example, share the pain of having their abilities minimized by superiors and colleagues alike. Lucas faces this challenge because, at one point in his life, he took advantage of a much-deserved Affirmative Action program. Angieís problem is that people repeatedly and aggravatingly assume that she holds her position because of her looks. One of her colleagues even went so far as to say, "Angie got promoted just because her boss likes to look at her." In the cases of Henry and Mai, they both know what it feels like to be lost and confused in a new culture replete with a different language and different rules for success.

I canít say with certainty that I know that Lucas, Angie, Henry, and Mai had biases against each other, but if they did, I would optimistically point out that they had at their finger tips a devise tailor-made to make those biases disappear. This devise is called the "Magic If" strategy. The Magic If is a concept that builds on the principle that the more we identify what we share, the fewer biases we have against each other. This is because, once we identify shared values, we convert "them" to "us" and, as a result, evaluate people more fairly.

The Magic If is one of the most effective ways to create this desired "usness." Devised by acting coach Constantin Stanislavsky to help actors get under the skin of their characters, the Magic If creates empathy by asking the question, "How would I feel IF I had lived this personís life experience?" This empathy " this shared emotion " becomes in essence a shared kinship group which, in turn, reduces bias.

For those of you who question the possibility of achieving empathy between kinship groups who possess substantially different amounts of power and who have been subjected to substantially different intensities of bias, I sympathize with your skepticism. Full understanding of anotherís life experience is, I agree, illusive if, as my father used to say, you havenít "been there." Luckily, full understanding is not a prerequisite to empathy. What we are after, and what we can realistically expect, is a reasonably well-considered grasp of the essence of what the other person is feeling. Once that grasp is achieved, a new kinship group is created and bias becomes a great deal more difficult to sustain.

The Magic If invites us to see how much empathy we can muster for the emotion " positive or negative " experienced by those whom we think of as different from ourselves. This emotion might have to do with loss or joy, with a shared ambition, a painful moment, or any other significant feeling.

Your task as you work around and manage people different from yourself is to watch for a spark of recognition, a moment of familiarity, a pang of memory of a time when you felt a similar emotion or found yourself in a similar position. Remember, the degree does not have to be the same, the nature of the discomfort does. Here are some brief examples that will help you better understand the process.
  1. A woman is angry and frustrated when someone falsely accuses her of homophobia. Because of those emotions, she is able to approximate the pain of and empathize with the fear and frustration of a male friend falsely accused of sexism.
  2. A black man is hurt and angry when accused of a crime merely because of the color of his skin. Because of that emotion, he is able to understand the pain of the white woman who is unfairly charged with racism.
  3. A white Christian is hurt when he overhears a colleague make a snide remark about his religion. Because of that emotion, he is able to sympathize with a Muslim colleague who finds an anti-Muslim joke taped to his locker at work.
The trick here is to keep your heart and mind open to what you might share with others. Donít get seduced into thinking, "I canít get it," "I can never understand," or "I havenít been there." Remember, you donít need to have the identical experience. A spark of recognition just might be enough to spot your shared humanity and erode you bias.

Copyright Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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