How Inclusive Is Your Business? Take the “Airplane Seat Exercise” to Find Out


There is a buzzword regarding diversity efforts: “Inclusion”. All buzzwords suffer from the same fate; they become so widely overused that they lose their meaning.

Let’s investigate the definition of inclusion.

While diversity efforts of an organization attempt to recruit members with varied demographics, psychographics, life experiences, etc., an inclusive attitude integrates and welcomes those differences. Put another way, diversity is the actual mix of backgrounds, while inclusion is the result: an environment that fosters value, respect, and support that makes the mix work.

A state of inclusion requires each individual to be more than tolerant. We must accept others for who they are. Definitions of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion often intertwine, are confused and vary from individual to individual.

Mr. Garrison (a character in the animated South Park series) offered his own enlightening (and colorful!) definition of tolerance vs. acceptance:

Look. Just because you have to tolerate something doesn’t mean you have to approve of it. If you had to like it, it’d be called the Museum of Acceptance. Tolerate means you’re just putting up with it. You tolerate a crying child sitting next to you on the airplane, or you tolerate a bad cold. It still p***s you off. (more expletives deleted!)”  Mr. Garrison, Episode 614

Mr. Garrison’s definition of tolerance, re-phrased in my business-appropriate style, means that you allow something that you don’t like to occur without displaying any outward, adverse reaction. Things that you tolerate annoy you, and they can drain your energy, weigh you down, and clutter up your mind. They show up in all areas of your business and personal lives.

You may, or may not, show outward signs of tolerance. You might be seated next to a crying child during your 8-hour flight (when you forgot your noise canceling ear phones!), but you probably don’t glare at, or scold, the poor child’s mother. Instead, you constrain your irritation and count down the minutes until the flight lands. That’s tolerance.

Acceptance takes a major step beyond tolerance. It means welcoming anyone to sit next to you, including the crying child. Acceptance cultivates empathy. You remember when your own children cried on a long flight because they couldn’t regulate their ear pressure and felt the resulting pain. So now, you reassure the young mother, and even offer to watch her child while she uses the restroom. That’s acceptance in action.

Try an experiment to feel the difference between being tolerated and being accepted. Recruit a partner. Ask him to say “I tolerate you.” Note how you feel. Then ask him to say “I accept you.” Note how you feel this time, and compare with your previous reaction. Is there a difference?

Acceptance takes a major step beyond tolerance. It means welcoming anyone to sit next to you. Click To Tweet

The Airplane Seat Exercise:

It’s easy to accept people who are like us. What about those who are different? Would you say that you also accept them? If so, let’s test it.

Imagine you are in a window seat on an airplane and you anxiously await to see who sits beside you. As you scan the people who approach your row, do you ever spot a potential seatmate and think, “No, no, no! Please, don’t sit here!”?

Print the pdf copy of the following exercise. Think about the people who you would like to sit next to you on your next flight, and those that you wouldn’t.

“Unconditional love is a lofty ideal, but unconditional hate is a fact well documented by history.” Mason Cooley, an American aphorist, known for his wit.

Categorize the type of people under each of the headings on this imaginary scale.


At the extreme left is unconditional hate, where you don’t like anyone. Next, is conditional hate which may include a specific type of person, religion, or whole country. Both emotions can lead to violence and even turn deadly.

On the far right are the love categories. Conditional love means that you love someone, but only if they meet certain criteria of yours. Unconditional love means just that.

Do a similar exercise for the culture in your business. As a whole, what kind of people or circumstances are tolerated versus accepted. How do the results of your personal exercise compare to the results for your company? Do you see a relationship?


I often hear that tolerance is a virtue. Is it? It depends. Compared to hate, it is. Compared to acceptance, it isn’t. Tolerance is a precursor to acceptance which is a precursor to an environment of inclusion.

Who or what do you tolerate that you wish you could accept? What steps do you need to take in your business to move toward inclusion? Use the Airplane Seat Exercise to find out.


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