A conversation with Anita Abaisa; Professional Upgrader of SEP, Director IBias VR, and Committee Member at VRARA Netherlands.
“Keep listening. Definitely keep listening, keep trying. But it is what you’re saying, it’s our goal to help people change their behavior. And if we want to help people change their behavior, we have to show them how and we have to seduce them. If we force people to change, it will be much harder. But what if we seduce people to change, to show them what it’s worth for them to change? That’s much more interesting. And people are far more willing to do that. Instead of forcing people like, “You need to change.” And you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to do it because you want it.” But how about I want to do this because I want it myself?” –Anita Abaisa
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Anita Abaisa about her experience making a greater impact using VR in her DEI training programs. She shares how using the technology in her training compares to the participants that don’t. Later, Anita explains why taking little steps is the key to behavior change. We then discuss the importance of showing people how to change. Listen in for more inspiration in how to support and engage teams to stop talent from changing jobs.
[2:20] How Anita Got Her Start Using VR in her DEI Trainings.
[9:01] What You Notice Watching Participants Using VR During Trainings.
[18:11] How Lived Experiences Affect How People Recognize Themselves In Her Trainings.
[27:25] Why Showing People How To Change Is Important.
[32:14] Why Being Honest About The Health Of Your Work Culture Is Important.
Links | Resources
Anita on Linkedin
About the Guest
Anita Abaisa is Founder of Black Ladies Talk which is the largest black women community in Europe, Co-Founder of Gladiator Academy she wants to bridge the gap between education and the job market by training programs with a focus on professional and life skills.
She is also founder of IBias VR. With IBias VR she combines technology and science to offer DEI training programs with impact.
Mission: Upgrade socio-economic positions of minority groups. She is a Professional Upgrader and challenges the status quo to upgrade with her. She has a background in Sales, Positive Psychology and Learning & Development
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime you can join our weekly Control The Room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltage control.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com.
Today I’m with Anita Abaisa, the founder of Ibias VR, where she develops virtual reality training programs to bridge the gap between education and the job market with a focus on professional and life skills. She’s also the founder of Black Ladies Talk, which is the largest black woman’s community in Europe. Welcome to the show, Anita.
Anita: Thank you.
Douglas: So it’s so good to have you. I’ve been really looking forward to talking again and I guess as we get started here, I’d love to hear how you got into this work of bias training in VR. How did you get into this?
Anita: Oh, how did I get into this? I showed a meeting with someone who was a VR expert, and he started talking about the possibilities with VR. And then as our conversation was going, I was talking about what I was doing when it comes to learning and development. And then we got to the point of diversity inclusion equity, and then he told me, well VR is actually a great tool to experience certain kind of things. And that really got me curious. So then I tried VR myself and from there on, I saw the possibilities. And I think that was summer in 2019.
And from there on, I started reading all kinds of articles, but also I had this gut feeling that there was a light going on when it comes to training in the DEI market, but what was the impact of all of these trainings? And I guess it was not that much because I experienced that there wasn’t a lot of change in the market, but also when I was talking to people, people got annoyed by the subject. So I was like, “Hmm, what can I do?” And I also promised not to get started in that mark until I had the solution. And when this guy told me about VR, I was like, “I think this is a big part of the solution.” It’s not a silver bullet, but I do think this is a solution just simply because of the fact that it’s helps you to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to see others’ perspective. So that’s where it all started.
Douglas: So what do you think was the thing that folks found so annoying about the training previously?
A lot of information and a lot of knowledge, but the question I often hear heard and still hear is what can I do different after this training? And if you still have a question like that after you finish training, it wasn’t a good training, because the training did not offer you perspective of how to change your behavior. So these were the things I was hearing and I was like, “Okay, this really needs to change,” because of the impact of DEI on people’s lives.
Douglas: Absolutely. And did you find that was in a large part to do with the interactions that were possible when you’re not in a VR environment or was it also around actual curriculum that was developed?
Anita: I think it’s a combination of both. So yes, the curriculum, if it was even a curriculum, if it wasn’t just a PowerPoint in most of the cases. But also the opportunity with VR, the thing is the instruments people use when it comes to training are videos, storytelling. Yeah, sometimes even theater. But theater it comes close. But I think the big difference is with VR, when you put these glasses on your brain shuts down from reality and starts working on the virtual reality. And that’s the big difference because one of the things we aren’t able to see from others is the perspective of others, the environment where people are acting in. And that is so important when it comes to behavior, but also for people to get triggers. So when you’re experiencing something, you are responding on your environment often, and this environment triggers something which by its turn triggers emotion, and then you’ll get touched in some way.
And with VR, you can give people that experience, which is so important. And when it comes to storytelling or even watching a movie, it’s not the same. Also, when you have different backgrounds, somebody can tell you a story, but I always compare it with what I’m doing now. So if we’re in a group and I’m giving 10 people VR glasses, and they’re all watching the same movie at the same time, I know they’re seeing the same image. But if I’m telling a story to 10 people who are sitting in the same space, depending on their backgrounds, and if we could see what the image was in their heads, we would see probably 10 different images. And those images were formed by their background, education, et cetera and that’s the big difference.
Douglas: Well, that’s really fascinating because it raises this other point, which is, if we’re in a VR space and we’re all experiencing the same content, it kind of levels the playing field a bit because-
Douglas: … if you and I were to sit down right now and watch the same video content or read the same piece of content, or look at Zoom at the same time, you got your MacBook Air down on your table, I’ve got my screen up, I’m standing. But when we put on these goggles, it kind of creates the same perspective, which is-
Douglas: … something that I was thinking about when you were sharing.
Anita: Yes. It creates the same perspective. And what’s really interesting, VR by itself it’s just a technical tool, so it’s not a goal. It’s an instrument for us to use, to help us to get the dialogue starting. And what’s really interesting is when you’re having a dialogue afterwards, that’s really interesting because if you start asking, how did people feel, how did they experience things, they’re naming the same emotions. So that is really fascinating. They’re naming the same emotions, but also they still can have their own opinion about it. But the opinion in this case is not really where it’s all about. It’s what did it trigger? What kind of feeling is it triggered? And those are beautiful dialogues to have with, how did you feel? Because we don’t have these conversations often. Most of the time we skip the feeling part and we go to, well, my opinion is this or that. And in this case, your opinion doesn’t matter. What did you feel? What did you experience? That’s far more interesting and that’s what VR triggers.
Douglas: Coming back to the whole question around, how am I going to behave differently or how do I put this into action? I feel like those debriefs, those moments where we have a dialogue around emotions and feelings and reactions and just reflecting together as a group, allow us to get to those epiphanies of how we put it into action.
Anita: Definitely. Definitely. And sometimes in some of our workshop, we also give half of the group, we give them a goggle and the other half we don’t give them, but we do give them the assignment to observe. What do they see? What’s happening with these people who are having the goggles on? And that’s also, those are like two groups. And that’s really fascinating what comes out of that and what do people learn from observing other people. Because these people, you are observing them when they are experiencing something that they aren’t used to. And those conversations are really next level.
Douglas: Wow. What are some of the things that you hear from folks when they are reflecting on what they noticed about observing the folks that had goggles on?
Anita: They see people get uncomfortable. They see people look unhappy, sad. They see how people change their body language. People get aware, get more aware, because people are aware that we do have body language, but because we actually don’t really see it, we don’t really focus on it. They’re like, “Oh wow. I can see much more than I thought before, actually.” So people are surprised how much they can see when they’re really observing.
Douglas: Wow. That’s really fascinating. The body language piece, because I think as humans definitely culturally in the U.S., it’s not necessarily acceptable or we just don’t feel comfortable just staring at other people. But if we’re given permission to do that as an exercise in empathy and with the goggles on, it kind of makes it easier for us to move past that cultural barrier, because people can’t see us watching.
Douglas: And just watching how they move their shoulders, how they hold their head. Even though we can’t see their eyes, we can see how they might be… How’s their nose moving? How’s the corner of their mouth moving? And those could be really amazing cues to start to key in on if we’re not noticing these things and everyday work.
Anita: But definitely, exactly like you’re saying everyday work. So people tell me but if I do this same thing on the work floor, then I’m able to see a lot more. And then I tell them exactly and that’s what I want you to do. That’s what I want you to be aware of that there’s so much more to see if we really look. But do we often take the time to look, to observe when we are working or are we rushing to the one meeting to another? And even in a meeting, if you do listen, but you also really start observing to look at your colleagues and really see them, what is happening in the dynamics? What is happening if you leave the words out. And those are interesting things, but we often tend to think that we’re communicating with words. But words is really just a part there’s so much more to see what people don’t say with words, but do say with their body language, with their facial expression, et cetera.
Douglas: Yeah. It makes me think about this idea of listening with our eyes.
Anita: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely.
Douglas: Our ears aren’t our only mechanism for picking up on how people are feeling and how people are being treated.
Anita: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. And one thing it got me aware of was what is said, but what’s also not being said, but it’s still in the same message.
Douglas: Wow, so cool.
Anita: So it’s interesting to listen to what’s been said, but while you’re saying that, what are you also saying, the implicit message?
Douglas: So I want to help listeners understand a little bit more about what’s going on on the other side of the visor. While these coworkers are observing folks that have the headsets on, what are these people experiencing that will cause these physical reactions that the others are observing?
Anita: So the scenarios we’re working with when it comes to DEI, we want to have people experience as much forms of diversity as is possible to capture with VR. So one of the things that is really powerful is the experience of neurodiversity. In this case, a little girl with autism, with the diagnosis of autism, and she’s attending a party. This is a surprise party, but for people with the diagnosis of autism, it’s not always easy to attend a party. And especially if your triggers are being sensitive for sound, for sharp sounds, being sensitive for crowded places, being sensitive or not all the time, seeing all of the faces, but sometimes even seeing blurry faces. And you’re trying to fit in, but you can’t. You just can’t. It’s not that you don’t want to, but you can’t.
So when people are observing, these people, they see them literally changing their position. They see people kind of trying to want to step behind, shrink down, but also sweaty hands. People they put their hands together and just you see them getting… There’s so much to see. And that’s the most interesting part because while people are experiencing this other world, the world of neurodiversity, you see these moments when something is challenging to them. When it gets intense in the movie, so at the certain point there’s this the plate is falling on the floor and you hear this sharp sound and you see people respond in their body language sometimes when the scene changes. And there are several people with the goggles on you see all of them change their position and start moving again. So it’s yeah, there’s so much to see. And yeah, that’s really interesting.
Douglas: So I’m curious, have you explored or thought about the idea of having people who maybe haven’t experienced biases or these feelings of being rejected or what have you experiencing moments like that?
Anita: One thing that is happening, because I haven’t specifically put these kind of people, the test with these kind of people, but what happens is, for example, when we show the movie of neurodiversity, people start saying like, “Oh, but this is me. This is me. I’ve got the same thing. I don’t like parties either. Or I don’t like crowded spaces.” So people recognize themselves in the person they’re watching. They’re like, “Oh, but this is me.” And they discover that they are also somewhere experiencing these same symptoms. And that’s really fascinating because it also happens that people after they watch the movie, they’re having this conversation and they’ll tell you, like, “This is what I’m trying to explain or have been trying to explain for years to my colleagues,” for example, “and they don’t understand. It’s so helpful for me to see this and to see it with my colleagues so they can better understand me.” So we don’t do it as a test, but it does happen often that people say like, “This is me. I recognize myself in this.”
Douglas: Yeah. I guess the thought I had was it could be really powerful for someone who’s, hasn’t had that lived experience. So the empathy might not be as strong. They haven’t felt it. They don’t know what it’s like to have some of these microaggressions happen. But it’s a dangerous thing because we certainly want to, wouldn’t want to trigger someone.
Douglas: And it gets into this who needs that experience versus who doesn’t. That would get kind of tricky.
Anita: Yeah. And that’s the thing. One thing we do is we do after care. So whenever our workshop is finished the day after we’ll contact the attendees to see how things are going and what it triggered with them. So we do have this conversation with our attendees just to make sure they’re okay, because indeed it can be triggering also. And sometimes with some movies we use, I also say as a disclaimer, this can be shocking so make sure you do want to see this. And if you don’t want to have that experience, that’s also, okay. So you’re not obligated to have the experience because you probably might know how it feels and how it works.
Douglas: Mm. So what’s an example of something that tends to be a bit more on the shocking end of things that when folks see your experience?
Anita: Well, it’s like you named it, for example microaggression. But also when it comes to gender diversity, there are things happening in there where people sometimes are not aware of in communication that can be, well, a little bit harassing, but you don’t meant it to be harassing. But the receiver decides. So whenever it comes to belly language, for example, if a guy stands and a woman is sitting and yeah, she’s looking at you, she’s not looking at you from a nice point of view. Let’s say it like that. So when it comes to gender, there might be triggering things.
But also it depends on, even in this case, it depends on the receiver. There are a lot of things that can be triggering because if I have to speak for myself as a woman of color, I find the microaggression movies, very shocking. And my heart always start to beat faster. So I really don’t like watching them because it’s also triggering for me. And I think a lot of people have their own triggers when watching these movies. At the same time, depending on the discussion you have afterwards, it might be that you’re able to share like, “This is what I’m experiencing. This is what I meant.” And if people are like, “Oh really? Oh, well, I did not know.” And that respond is priceless.
It’s priceless because it shows us that people, we often talk about things, especially when it comes to experiences, but we don’t really know what we’re talking about if we haven’t experienced it. But when somebody, when you’re having that experience yourself, you’re like, “I thought I knew, but I have no idea.” So what I also do is sometimes before people go through the VR experience, I ask them, what do you know about cultural diversity? Or what do you know about microaggression? What do you know about it? And people will tell you that they know what it means, what the word is. So they’re like, “Yeah, I do know what it is.” And then afterwards still say, “Well, I had this idea, but I didn’t have a clue. Now I have experienced this.”
Douglas: Wow. Yeah. There’s a lot to unpack there with this idea that everyone’s going to bring their lived experience in and that will impact how they’re triggered and what’s going to be emotionally struggling for them.
Anita: Definitely. Definitely. And that’s why we really think it’s important to do that aftercare because it’s our goal to have this empathy, to trigger empathy. But it’s not our goal to traumatize people. At the same time, if you’re thinking about you’re experiencing a movie of maybe two or three minutes, or maybe six minutes, five minutes, and some people are experiencing these kind of situations on daily basis, that’s really harmful.
Douglas: Yeah. That’s a totally different ball game when it’s this constant chronic, just micro stress. It can be quite overwhelming, even though the individual things might not seem like a big deal. In some cases, the little things are a big deal, but it’s like, there’s been a lot of research to show that micro stress can be quite overwhelming.
Anita: Yeah. You’re getting on long term, you’re getting exhausted. There’s so much. There’s so many things going on there. And I know it for myself because I’m working in this field, but I’ve also noticed how I’ve changed and where I do feel safe, where I don’t feel safe. So I’m getting very aware what do I need. And I’m also getting aware of where do I want to be and what are situations or places where I don’t want to be, because I simply don’t feel safe. So it also makes you aware in some kind of way, but for everyone, it will be in a different way.
Douglas: Absolutely. And so I’d love to hear a little bit more about the aftercare and how that works and how you approach it.
Anita: Well, the aftercare is really having this conversations with our S&Ds, like how did they feel. But also, how did they look back at the experience the day after? Do they want to have a more conversations about this? Or most people will say like, “No, just thank you for reaching out, but I’m good.” But it is nice to offer people this opportunity to do have that second talk, to do have that extra conversation if it’s needed. So most people are like, “No, I don’t need anything more.” But it is nice and it’s good to have that option. It feels safe. It makes people feel safe. And that’s exactly the reason why we offer this.
Douglas: Yeah. It feels nice to be checked in on at the very least. Yeah. So I’m curious to hear about how you help folks with their continued practice. Because I imagine as profound as it is putting these things on, it’s always easy for people to regress to the mean, or just go, there’s a reason why it’s called implicit bias. It’s hardwired in from a young age societally. And so I’m curious what kinds of things you’re doing to help people with that continued practice.
Anita: Well, so when you’ve had the experience, when you attend our three months program, after the training you will continue with coaching. So you will finish the training part with your own personal action list. And in that action list, you will continue. You will take the action list to your coaching and your coach will help you to realize whatever it is that you want to realize in these next three months. And we also challenge them to do baby steps or to do at least a step, which they are sure of that they will take the step. So don’t make it too challenging, especially when it comes to DEI. We do understand that people want to realize change, but sometimes small changes in long term are very big changes. And it’s more important that people commit to something they’re really going to do instead of putting big, big goals, which are never going to realize.
And for us as trainers, that’s the biggest challenge to help them to realize the good action list, from there on continue with their coach, who will help them. Because I always say, after you’re finished with your training, then it really starts, because you are going to have to go back to the workplace or into society and there you’ll get the chance to show your new behavior. And while you’re going to start applying your new behavior, you’re probably going to fall because it’s like the first time walking, you did not walk in one day. So the first step you will fall. But that’s why it’s good to have your coach there, to have a conversation with your coach to spread, to share your thoughts, share your experience. But your coach is also your cheerleader to say like, “Hey, you did well. At least you tried, but now come on and dust yourself off and go back into that ring and try again.” And maybe with some tips and tricks, if it’s needed.
The reflection, the opportunity to have that reflection with your coach, that’s really valuable. But also somebody will tell you like, “You’re going to be okay. You tried, now go back and do it again.” And so people then get into their coaching part. And then after three months, so they have three months. They have one hour of coaching and they can, if they want to, they can use one whole hour or they can spread their time. And after that, they’ll go back to the second training day. And in the second training day, they will also share what they experienced. And then they’ll also share who fell after the first training. And then everybody would pose hands up to the show people we all fall when we’re trying new behavior and that’s perfectly fine. That’s all, okay. It’s all part of the process, but it doesn’t mean we have to stop. It means we have to try again and continue and maybe find new ways. So we’ll share stories of success.
Douglas: I love that it’s continuously leaning into that empathy and also this idea that, how do we be vulnerable and keep listening,
Anita: Keep listening. Definitely keep listening, keep trying. But it is what you’re saying, it’s our goal to help people change their behavior. And if we want to help people change their behavior, we have to show them how and we have to seduce them. If we force people to change, it will be much harder. But what if we seduce people to change, to show them what it’s worth for them to change? That’s much more interesting. And people are far more willing to do that. Instead of forcing people like, “You need to change.” And you’re like, “Okay, I’m going to do it because you want it.” But how about I want to do this because I want it myself?
Douglas: Yeah. It’s like, how do we internalize it?
Anita: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely.
Douglas: So good. One of the things you mentioned in the pre-show chat that I was really curious about was like this notion of needed change and what is real change. I’m really curious to hear more about that.
Anita: Yeah. Well, when it, when it comes to DEI we need real change and that was also my frustration about the DEI markets, because I noticed that wasn’t a lot changing. But also when I was talking to people, everybody was having that same thing and a lot of people did not want to attend these DEI trainings anymore. And even, I think it was two weeks ago, we did this workshop at a recruitment agency and the guy, when the workshop was finished. He came to us and he told us like, “When we started, I was skeptic because I was like, ‘Oh, there’s this workshop again, of two women who want us to change,’ et cetera. And I like, ‘Oh, I’m so skeptic.'” And afterwards, he was like, “Wow, this was so different. This was so powerful. This really helped me. And I’m really blown away the way we did the workshop, but also what the VR experience triggered, but also the conversation afterwards.”
And I think people are fed up to just see PowerPoints, but also the PowerPoints don’t show them what to do different. So if you’re willing to change your behavior, if nobody shows you how, it’s frustrating. So a lot of people get frustrated because of all these false DEI trainings, which aren’t going anywhere, but also when it comes to the impact on the job market, the impact of wellbeing for people on the job market, it’s actually shocking that things are going so slow. And if we look at people, leaving their jobs at this moment in a lot of places, I think that’s good. It’s good that people start saying, we’re fed up. We’re fed up, we want to be treated better. And it’s a sign and it’s also a chance. And I think that’s where the change is also needed. That’s why the change is also needed.
If you are a good employer, you’re going to be rewarded by good employees. You’re going to be rewarded by people finding you. But being a good employer means that you are giving everybody the opportunity to be themselves, to be the best version of themselves. But when you’re getting the best version of people, you can also get the other side, the ugly side. But that’s okay, that shouldn’t be a problem. If we just agree with each other, what are the rules to work together? How are we going to work together? What’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable.
And I think that is where we’re standing now. And what we need now is action. We need action. We need well willing employers who are saying like, “We are committed to be the best employer we can be, so we can be the best for our employees. But also if we really want to be the best company in our segment or in our country, this is one of the most important ingredients.” So I’m like, “What are we talking about? Why if this even needed to point out?” But it is needed probably that people did not… A lot of companies are like, “But everything is going fine. Everything is okay.” And I’m now, I’m thinking like, “Is it? Is it? If everything is really okay, why are your employees leaving your company?”
Douglas: Such an important point. I think with attrition and the competition in the job market, and also just when we think about companies that are able to generate better outcomes, whether it’s for society or just for the bottom line there’s a lot of evidence that points toward engaged and supported teams. And you can’t have engaged in supported teams without a focus on DEI and really understanding those mechanisms.
Anita: Exactly, exactly. So that’s what I’m saying. What are we talking about? Because every year when people are presenting their new goal for this new year, I think at this moment in 2022, if you are presenting what your targets are for the next year and what your plans are, if you leave DEI out of it, it’s a plan with a big hole in it. You’re never going to realize these targets or whatever it is that your plans are. You’re never going to realize it fully because there’s a big missing link.
Douglas: So Anita, we’re coming to our end here and I want to make sure that we save enough time for you to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Anita: Well, what’s great, I have shared a lot of my thoughts, but my final thought is I really invite everyone to really take a good look at these employees leaving companies. It’s a sign. It’s a sign that your company is bleeding. But it’s also a sign that that place is an unhealthy place for people to go to work too. So when it comes to employers, I want to challenge you to look at how hard you’re bleeding. Are you even aware that you’re bleeding? Because I come to places where people aren’t even aware that they’re bleeding and they don’t even know why they are bleeding. Well, so I would say, find that out. Find out are you bleeding and why are we bleeding and how hard are you bleeding? And when it comes to how to stop the bleeding, well, I think I shared enough. And for employees, just give yourself the opportunity to work at a place where you are being valued, where you are being safe, where you can be your whole self, where you can bring your whole self. That’s my final thought.
Douglas: Well, thank you, Anita. It’s been such a pleasure chatting today. Thanks so much for joining me.
Anita: Thank you. Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here and thank you for the invitation.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, voltagecontrol.com.