Empty Chair

filed under Anecdotes and Stories, Diversity Education, Key Concepts & Conversations.

Panel presentations can be a cost-effective and engaging educational option for employees in many types of organizations.  Different panelists offer alternative views and approaches to timely topics.  Panel programs, especially when they include opportunities for questions from the audience, have the potential to hold attention, spark further discussion and inspire action.

Like any other educational program, panels work best with three key ingredients:  preparation, preparation and preparation.  This includes getting clear about goals, choosing panelists with care, developing clear questions and setting expectations about timing and response areas.  Advance discussion among panelists builds a rapport that makes the program “click”.

Sometimes, though, the unexpected occurs.

For several years, I designed and moderated an annual diversity panel program for an organization.  Panelists representing different dimensions of diversity spoke to the entire staff at an annual meeting.  One panel focused on generational diversity, another on diversity leadership.  But the panel that stuck most in my mind was the first.  There are so many opportunities to learn from the “firsts”.

This was an introductory program.  Panelists encompassed multiple diversity dimensions that some consider to be more familiar:  age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and ability. The focus was customer service.

The day of the program, the room was filled.  Hundreds of employees were in their seats. The panelists were ready to go – except for one.  It was time to start and one of our panelists hadn’t arrived.  Instead, there was an empty chair on stage.

I introduced each panelist in turn with background information and something I’d learned about them as we prepared.  I drew it out even though I knew we were on a tight schedule.  I scanned the doors, thinking surely the missing panelist would appear. The empty chair was something for which I had not prepared.

After introducing the last panelist present, I made a quick decision and introduced the empty chair.

Our fifth panelist did not arrive, I announced. The chair served as a question:  where are the empty chairs in your organization?

The empty chairs may be in your customer base,  applicant pool,  leadership team or employee group.  Until you see them, you can’t fill them.

Sometimes, merely extending an invitation isn’t enough.  We must also ask, how was that invitation extended and how have we made it possible for those we invite to get here? Filling chairs at the table became a metaphor for full inclusion.

Panel presentations rely on the richness of participant diversity, which means occasionally the unexpected will happen.  Sometimes the unexpected can be a most pertinent part of the education – and an illustration that opportunities to learn abound for all!

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