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PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

One of the unexpected obligations as a lecturer in law at a major university is that I must participate in harassment prevention training. One topic caught my attention although it was barely mentioned: micro-affirmations.

Digging deeper into this topic on my own, I discovered the concept of micro inequities which is a form of unconscious or implicit bias. Mary Rowe, an economist and conflict management consultant at the MIT Sloan School of Management (“Rowe”) defined micro-inequities in 1973 as:

“… apparently small events which are ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be different.”

They are mini-messages that have a huge impact, conveying quite subtlety whether and how much or little a person is appreciated, valued or thought about. (What’s in a Micro-Message). Such messages may include “… a nod of the head, an insincere smile, a sideways glance, and the tone and inflection of your voice.” (Id.) They can include a “… weak handshake with little or no eye contact, listening with my arms closed across my chest, …. Pecking away at my cell phone/ other device while someone is talking to me…. Looking at my watch while someone is talking to me; typing away while someone is talking to me…. hovering over someone in a controlling or menacing way.”(Id.)

These micro-inequities can take two forms: micro-aggression and micro-affirmations. Micro aggressions have been defined as:

“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. (Sue, 2010.p.5)” 
Micro-aggressions & Micro-affirmations—Unconscious actions and implicit bias by Emelyn A. dela Pena, Ed.D. PowerPoint at p.5) (January 2015) (“PPT”)

Examples include referring to a male supervisor as “Mr.” or some other title while referring to a female supervisor by her first name or incorrect title; asking a multiracial person “What are you?”; avoiding eye contact or physical contact with a person who has a disability; consistently calling someone by the wrong gender pronoun; or assuming everyone in your group can afford a luxury or extravagance. (Id. at p. 8.)

Micro-affirmations, on the other hand, are “… small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious, but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.” (Rowe at p. 4.)

Examples include, “acknowledging that a micro-aggression may have occurred, visibly confronting inequitable, hostile, or biased behavior, stopping to ask for someone’s opinion or contribution who has not had a chance to speak…”(PPT. at p. 13.)

In sum, as Professor Rowe explains:

Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others—in providing comfort and support when others are in distress, when there has been a failure at the bench, or an idea that did not work out, or a public attack. Micro-affirmations include the myriad details of fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness. (Rowe at 4.)

As a mediator, I find this topic intriguing because it highlights how significant are the little things we do or don’t do, how important our unconscious, unintentional acts may be and what a difference they may make. I have always said that a lot of litigation arises due to a lack of communication or miscommunication. Just think how much we are communicating through micro-inequities, and we are not even aware that we are sending such messages! And… just think how much we can accomplish through micro-affirmations also known as random acts of kindness!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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