On Moving From Tolerance to Inclusion: Four Suggestions to Make the Journey


A twenty year younger version of me would have sparingly been tolerant of differences, and on most occasions, not even that. Fortunately, I've always enjoyed ageing, even looked forward to it. I don't particularly pine for wrinkle free days and when binging didn't end up in regret the next morning. I would never trade my journey from tolerance to inclusion for any youthful indulgence. The place in life I now find myself in has helped forge relationships and friendships that were merely a dream back then, completely inaccessible and not even within my comprehension, perhaps.

Yet, it's been a long road from denial of differences that turned my life's beliefs upside down to intense soul searching about my place in the world, some of which continues, and I am glad it does.

Recent related article: Why Diversity is not an initiative, and better ways to describe it

Over the past decade and half, as I travelled in and out of my home country to several others, I met with cultures that shocked me, surprised me and even brought tears of joy. I experienced connectedness with those who lived thousands of miles away in ways I had missed with those who grew up right next door. The jolts were necessary and important parts of where I find myself today. The varied cultural and life experiences have brought as much value and pleasure as they have brought heartache and some regrets even. So I won’t romanticise this. The transition has been hard and definitely not all poetic.

Yet, no lesson came through without its invaluable addition to being more human, less judgmental and more accepting. We are different and so is the person standing in front of us. We wouldn’t have made that decision, but they did. They wouldn’t have made the one we did either. And that’s all right. You may agree, this is easier said than done. Acceptance that moves us to inclusion is mostly hard and takes time

What stops us from moving to inclusion then? Maybe the fact that resistance and tolerance is a way to protect ourselves from influences. It's our defense mechanism to endure something we don't much like, but hope won't change us in ways that we might like even less.

Inclusion is the opposite; it's letting down our defenses and opening up to experiences and beliefs that may very likely alter us, but we still welcome them in the hope that we’ll be richer for it.

Tolerance is not inclusion then. It's a milestone in the journey to being more accepting and inclusive of those who didn’t grow up like us, who don’t look like us, and more importantly, those who don’t think and behave like us.

No wonder then that organisations and teams often find inclusion a bigger challenge to get through than building an equitable and diverse workforce. Diversity can be hired, mentored and promoted. Inclusion continues to be a very personal decision that eludes policy and numbers. Inclusion is a choice, and a very intimate one at that.

So here are 4 suggestions that can enable us to move from tolerance to inclusion:

Question Beliefs

I grew up in a smallish town that grew bigger, but forgot to expand its mind on the way. So we continued to believe on a large scale what we did on a much smaller one. That wasn’t real progress in hindsight. Over the years, I began to question my beliefs that I held so close, but were no longer the convincing reality they once were. At times, the answers took long, some meandered through life's many experiences, but I finally found the important ones. It all began with the willingness to ask - am I thinking this the right way? Is this all there is to it? What if what I believe isn't even true? What if I am being unfair or plain bigoted? Asking is the first step, and asking takes courage.

Catch Tolerance

Often tolerance comes disguised as being really nice, smiling a lot and saying things to be politically correct rather than approach another with a sense of genuine enquiry and curiosity. If we catch ourselves exerting a lot of energy to be good or polite, but feel exhausted after the effort, we might be tolerating, not really including the person. Inclusion feels good, genuinely good. Inclusion is energising, it's interactive because it’s about both of us. It’s also about being real, being who we are, and who we are deep down is not just about being nice.

Practice Discomfort

What we don’t include, we exclude by default. We may not be guilty of pushing away different experiences and people outright. Yet, in staying within our comfort zone and with familiar people, we exclude those different from us. We are tempted to repeat comfortable patterns that reinforce our worldview within the limits of our cultural norms and upbringing. What if we met differences often and stretched some of our limits to take a peek beyond? It takes a surprisingly short amount of time to begin finding ‘strange’ and 'amusing' more normal than we thought. We are adaptable beings, built for discomfort and differences.


No training program, policy or organisational incentive to be inclusive can match the richness of travel experiences. Until I travelled, I didn’t begin to question my tolerance or the lack of it. When those I never thought had anything in common with me, embraced and helped me, I felt shaken deep down. For that to happen, we don't need to cross continents if we can't. Even traveling within our own country or city compels us to meet differences that get easily missed out in the rut of life. Travelling stretches us and helps us realise how much bigger humankind is than the 300 people we know in our network. It gives us pockets of solitude and silence, so that deep and uncomfortable questions have a chance to surface. Moving is not just physical, thoughts shift, too, and so does the spirit. So let’s travel, and get out more often.

I would love to hear what strategies you might use and recommend for each of us to be more inclusive of differences. Do post a comment when you can.

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