The diversity awareness ladder

What it is:

The Diversity Awareness Ladder is a tool, created by David Clutterbuck, to help both clients and practitioners understand and work with their stereotypes and implicit biases about people, who they perceive as different from themselves. It has also been used widely in the context of general diversity education.

How does it work?

The Ladder is a model of two conversations – the inner conversation, which represents instinctive, emotional responses to difference and is not normally spoken out loud; and the outer conversation, which offers a way of engaging with the other person to counter and overcome the concerns of the inner conversation. 

On the early steps of the Ladder, people tend to avoid conversation with the “different” person or group – often for positive reasons, such as not wanting to offend by saying the wrong thing. When a client defines where they are on the ladder, they have a starting point for addressing the assumptions and concerns that prevent them having fully open conversations that genuinely value difference.


The inner conversation 

The outer conversation

1.  Fear

What do I fear from this person?

What do I fear learning about myself?

What might I be avoiding admitting to myself?

What do we have in common?

What concerns do you have about me and my intentions?

2. Wariness

What if I say the wrong thing?

Is their expectation of me negative and/or stereotyped?

How open and honest can I be with them?

How can we be more open with each other?

How can we recognise and manage behaviours that make each other feel uncomfortable/ unvalued?

3.  Tolerance

What judgements am I making about this person and on what basis?

What boundaries am I seeking/ applying in dealing with this person?

How can we exist/ work together without friction?

How can we take blame out of our conversations?

4.  Acceptance

Can I accept this person for who they are?

Can I accept and work with the validity of their perspective, even if it’s different from mine?

What values do you hold? 

How do you apply them?
How can we make our collaboration active and purposeful?

5.  Appreciation

What can I learn from this person?

How could knowing them make a better/ more accomplished person?

What can we learn from each other?

How will we learn from each other?


Using the tool:

The Ladder is most often used in the context of a diversity mentoring programme, as a means of helping people open up about the difficult topic of implicit bias and stereotyping. However, it can also be valuable in any coaching or mentoring relationship, where the client needs to become more at ease and more effective in dealing with diversity issues. The Ladder helps the client identify and acknowledge the inner conversation, and explore with their coach/ mentor how to replace that inner conversation with one that is more authentic, more self-honest and more likely to result in positive communication and mutual respect with regard to groups they may consciously or unconsciously avoid. It can also be useful in training coaches to become more aware of how they can build rapport more effectively with people, from backgrounds very different to their own.

The critical steps in using the Ladder are:

  1. Helping the team recognise their instinctive, often unconscious assumptions about groups of “others”.  (How they categorise a group may vary considerably.) Simple ways to do this include recalling times when they have had (or avoided) conversations with people from that group. How did they feel? What inner conversation was going on for them?


  2. Recognising the benefits of adopting a different inner conversation, which might lead them to a different conversation with people from that group.


  3. Helping them gradually replace the existing internal and external conversations with new, more inclusive conversations that show greater appreciation of difference


  4. Helping them embed these new conversations – and the new ways of thinking that underpin them – into their day to day responses to other people.

Copyright – David Clutterbuck

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