Fueled by so many platforms for self-publishing and one-way communication, interaction among people is more divisive than ever. Republican/Democrat; Guns/No Guns, Conservative/Liberal, Coke/Pepsi. It’s no surprise that a lack of civility has spilled over into living rooms and offices across the country.
What can be done? Study after study shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones every time. Why? It’s the diversity of ideas that yields better outcomes and promotes the most innovative and powerful solutions. But to share ideas there has to be discourse. And to have discourse, there has to be listening.
Can the basic tenets of intercultural dialogue help? Yes. Especially when combined with a commitment to true and heartfelt listening.
Approach it as an interculturalist
It is a natural reflex to label people who are different from us, especially when we don’t relate to their perspective. If someone communicates differently or behaves differently, or has different values than us, we tend to label them in a negative way. It goes back to our primal “fight or flight” days. Cultural competence, however, teaches that our way is not the only way, just one of many. That is also true for ideas.
Intent and Impact
In Intercultural Communications, we know that intent does not equal impact. We recognize that people come to the table with different experiences and expectations. One solution to that is to state your intent. For example, I may serve you the turkey leg and thigh as a guest in my house because that’s the best part. But if you think the turkey breast is best, or are vegetarian, despite my best intent, the impact may be offensive.
State your intent. “I believe this because…” Giving context and ownership to your ideas humanizes them. It’s impossible for someone to say “all of you x’s think this” (which you shouldn’t say anyway, speaking of the exact definition of stereotypes) when you are able to articulate your ideas, provide examples, and establish a personal connection.
Content vs Delivery
“I’ll be happy to listen to you as soon as you calm down.”
That is a sure fire way to escalate a conversation. The person saying it is most likely a direct and emotionally restrained communicator, which is the most highly normed style in the US. That style says facts first: give me the facts and I will make a decision. But what if someone is indirect and/or emotionally expressive? That style says “I need to connect to you as a person first, to glean meaning.” Neither approach is right or wrong. It just is.
The secret here, as a listener, is to separate the tone of voice from what is being said to glean meaning.
Stay with Discomfort
Anger, unease and defensiveness are all natural reactions when we are confronted with something new, whether it is a new culture or a new idea. Just remember, that moment of discomfort is usually when you are at the cusp of learning. Like in weight lifting—the moment the weight is too much and the muscle fails, that is the moment the muscle gets stronger.
Really Listen (with Open Heart and Open Mind)
Listening is complex, it takes our full being. More than an art, it’s a practice: the more you do it the more proficient you become. The key steps are
- Open your Heart
- Suspend Judgment
- Release Fear
This process, which allows you to be fully present to hear others ideas, is well-captured in the model of Otto Scharmer in Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges.
We live in an interdependent reality. We need each other to be successful. Social scientists and leadership development consultants over the years have touted the wisdom of leaders and people in general to become better listeners.
St. Francis highlighted, and Dr. Stephen R. Covey popularized, the notion that to be effective in human interactions, one must “first seek to understand, then to be understood.” This is paramount to effective human relationships as well as in dealing with conflictual conversation. Most individuals listen to respond, not to understand, leading to increased acrimony, contentious and polarizing relationships.
Scharmer believes the steps to heighten listening consist of adopting a mindset of having an Open Mind and Open Heart, which leads to action being taken with an Open Will.
Each of these steps is hindered by individuals not being aware of their blind spots: the Voice of Judgment, the Voice of Cynicism and the Voice of Fear. Each one of these “demons” impedes listening. Because most are unaware of these entities which block relationship building, they are often the seedbed of prejudice and bias, further fracturing relationships.
It takes a level of maturity, competency and skill in listening to slow the thinking process down and suspend the Voice of Judgment. This allows for a freer exchange of communication and access by the “other” to our hearts, which are guarded by the Voice of Cynicism. This is what ultimately stops us from actions we might undertake benefiting all. We want to protect “our way.” And, of course, most interaction is stopped by the Voice of Fear. We don’t fully listen because we are challenged, afraid that we are wrong, fearful when we are challenged by ideas different than our own.
This is so ironic, going back to the Diversity & Inclusion studies, which tell us that the greatest opportunity for success is exactly when we do the opposite: open ourselves to new ideas that incorporate multiple perspectives.
Scharmer suggests journaling as a way of cataloging how effective you have been in managing the so-called “demons” and adopting practices of mindfulness as a way to regulate and manage the thinking process. Both are proven practices to improve listening.
In the End, You May Agree to Disagree
In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness,” Thich Nhat Hanh has an exercise that simply involves saying “Positive Outcomes” silently to yourself as you inhale deeply, and again as you exhale fully. Repeat as needed.
In most cases that’s what everyone wants: what’s good for themselves, their families, their communities. We just often have different ideas on how to get there. Focusing on “positive outcomes” may help us be more alert to those areas of overlap to work together. The deep breathing in the process also does wonders for maintaining a calm demeanor.
A final question through the intercultural communications lens: Does the difference make a difference? Does the current conflict impact the work at hand? If it does, incorporate that into your process, knowing that you need resolution to move forward.
If it doesn’t, or if you are family and always will be, you may want to focus on all of the commonalities and positive bonds between you, and simply agree to disagree: Love the person, not the idea. And that’s okay, too.
Johnson, Scott D., and Curt Bechler. “Leadership and Listening: Perceptions and Behaviors.” Speech Communication Annual 11 (1997): 57-70.
Scharmer, C. O., & Senge, P. M. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges: The Social Technology of Presencing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Covey, S. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
St Francis of Assisi, Peace Prayer,
Wood, Zachary R, Why It’s Worth Listening to People we Disagree with, TED Talk
Gerry Bouey, Ph.D. is a C-level executive coach with over thirty-five years’ experience in business, consulting, improvement efforts, and leadership development with senior and mid-level business leaders and managers.
Deanna Shoss is CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc. which provides Digital, Intercultural & IRL (In Real Life) Marketing for non-digital natives–entrepreneurs, dreamers and business owners age 50+ who are finally ready to say yes to their big ideas. She’s also a writer, professional speaker and certified aerobics and Body Pump instructor.
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