How Do I Respond?

How Can Diversity Increase Sales? was a workshop I did last month for a real estate group. After the presentation one of the agents, Matt Kohler, who is also a dad, had a question. Matt asked, “How do I respond to my kids when they point out differences?” Good question. While I spend most of my time working in corporate space, his question is common among adults too.

A Clever Guy with a Legitimate Question
Matt’s life experiences that has made him aware of the privilege he enjoys as a person of majority culture. Although he and his wife now live in a predominantly white area of St. Peters, he grew up in a mixed-race community in North County-St. Louis. Also, as a military veteran in Iraq, he experienced significant cultural differences. With heightened awareness and value for diversity, he was unsure of how to respond when kids point out differences.

How the Brain Works
The brain is always about the business of categorizing input it receives from the senses. We humans can’t help being judgmental. For example, as we walk through our day, in order to keep us safe, the brain is deciding if the people we come across are either a friend or foe. As a veteran he understood that. What happens is, we:

  • Associate people with whom we share common characteristics as a friend.
  • Have to think again, since this isn’t always the case.
  • Decide if our first reaction determines how we think/act.
  • Ask ourselves, “Do I act into the initial reaction or can I talk with this person?”

So often in majority culture, we want to play down differences and focus on the similarities. However, that approach doesn’t help build relationships across culture.

An Answer to His Question
Instead of playing down differences, it’s more effective to acknowledge them. We all see them. In fact, our unique physical structure and personal experience, whether they are because of gender, skin color, disability or otherwise, help form who we are and how we relate to the world. It’s not helpful to deny who and how we are. Along with the kids, notice the uniqueness and then ask a question that encourages empathy. For example:

  • “I see that person doesn’t have an arm.”
  • “That could be challenging for him.”
  • “I have a buddy that is a veteran who lost a limb. I wonder what it’s like?”
  • “How would life be different for you without an arm?”

Matt was visibly relieved. He told me he was glad that he didn’t have to “shush” his kids but could acknowledge their natural concern. He liked that he could help his kids empathize with another’s experience, even though it wasn’t their own. And although this is about parenting, managers in a corporate setting can apply a similar approach, asking reflective questions with their direct reports.

Comedian Chris Rock shows why whites may not initally empathize with another’s background but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Thanks to Matt for his willingness to learn and grow. -AN