Working together can oftentimes be more effective than taking the lead. And since I was new to the situation, I just wasn’t even sure what I could do. In late August, Word of Life Christian Church in north city St. Louis was holding their annual church fair and school supply give-away event.

It was a hot day in late August. Chairs and tables were being set up as stations for prayer, barbeque and school supplies. When we arrived to help, my husband, Cyril and I greeted and hugged on everyone. Cyril got right to work helping with setup and engaging folks in conversation. Standing there in the middle of the parking lot and looking around at all the activity, I wondered what I, as a white woman in an all-Black neighborhood, could possibly have to offer.

It then occurred to me that whatever I did, it would be good to sit down and not stand over people. I thought, “Okay then, where?” I saw my buddy Jonathan standing at the entrance by a card table, acting as a gatekeeper. This year we decided that rather than just giving away the school supplies, we would learn what else people in the community needed and could offer.

So Jonathan was asking the visitors to complete a short questionnaire and, should they choose to do so, provide their contact information. I watched how he so easily engaged with folks, clapping shoulders and shaking hands. He knew the language of the community and shared their skin color. Since Jonathan and I often spar and chat it up, I went to sit at the table by his side. Moms who came to the event sat down at the table to complete the questionnaire.

I quickly realized that by sitting, I was at kid eye level. And while the mom was working on the questionnaire, I got to talk with their children, learn their names and tell them mine. I got to learn what they thought of school. The little ones tended to enjoy school, while the teens were either proud of their efforts or frustrated with the system.

Because I am a mom and a teacher, I could share stories about my own kids’ struggle with school and tips for understanding how the system works. I was doing some deep listening, giving them eye contact and affirming their experience. From little ones, I’d get a hug or sometimes we just held hands. From the teens, they would chat me up and laugh.

Left my assumptions at the gate

As an educator, I’d heard that kids in the city don’t always start school the first day of classes. The idea made me sad because I knew that would mean the children fall behind from the beginning. But that day at card table, I left my assumptions at the gate and just listened. Since the first day of school was three days earlier, I asked one little girl how her first days went. The little one told me she hadn’t started school yet. The mom, who was sitting with me at the table, looked up and told me that she’d lost her job as a nurse’s assistant. She didn’t have the money for a uniform. I told her that I would want my child looking prepared for school too. Her shoulders relaxed. Jonathan overheard the conversation and offered to connect her with a friend who is also a nurse. She was visibly relieved. I told her if she still needed that uniform, the folks at church would help out.

Another mom came in with her teenage son and two daughters. The girls told me that they were working hard at school and shared their stories. We talked about paying attention to what they like and don’t like about school because that can indicate an area of interest for technical training or college. While the girls were talking about next steps after high school, their brother was quiet, rather stoic. I asked him how school was going for him. He hadn’t started yet.

His mom told me her son has developmental delays and she was worried about him being bullied. She’d kept him from starting school because she couldn’t get off work to meet with the teachers and didn’t want him in school unsafe.

I told her I’ve got children with learning disabilities and I like to meet with the teachers too. I asked her if I could ask her a question. She nodded. I said, “Does your son have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? I ask because I meet with my kids’ teachers before the school year starts to make sure they’re safe and understood. You can even ask to meet with them weekly or monthly until you’re sure you son feels safe.”

She thanked me for the advice. She went on to tell me he’s not always able to read kids’ intentions when they’re being nice to him. Then I turned to her son and let him know that he could ask his teachers to help him understand if a kid who’s being nice has good intentions or not. I told him he is not on his own. We all need others to help us really know people. Most teachers want to help.

As we follow up with these families, my effectiveness with these parents and kids remains to be seen. However, as a white lady welcomed into a different culture, I did not want to abuse my privilege. These people didn’t know me and yet were willing to share their stories. I learned some of the real issues that parents have to deal with within their context that I never would have learned had I not slowed down, withheld my assumptions and worked to be present in the situation. I also worked to be conscious of the tendency to take control of a conversation. While I might just be curious, questions for a person of an historically marginalized group can come across as intrusive. Instead, we can allow others the space to lead the conversation or not engage at all.

Four steps leaders can take

As a leader, I can use my cultural intelligence to appreciate a perspective different from my own and change my behavior to show genuine respect. So when I am engaging with people who have a different background or hold a unique perspective, I can:

  1. Withhold any assumption.
  2. Share something about myself to show some vulnerability
  3. Ask if I can ask a question.
  4. Listen deeply and affirm their experience

What I learned

It’s in relationship that we discover we both have something to learn. Whether our role is mentor or mentee, if we’re willing to deeply listen, we’re both changed into something new. In this case, I learned I could put my background as a teacher and teacher trainer to work. I could be aware of my preconceived ideas and not allow them to dictate my behavior. I could slow down, listen and learn.

This posture of willingness to learn is more productive than assuming we know the problem and the solution. It not only brings about clarity but also buy-in and commitment toward bringing about the solution. CEOs and organizational leaders too can allow the true needs of current and potential clients to come to the surface. For their staff, they can model and encourage collaborative leadership skills to develop within their staff by stepping back, being present through deep listening, and letting others describe how and what is needed in the existing situation. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

  1. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Dr. Amy is a speaker, author and coach. She works with organizations and their leaders who want to be confident communicators so that they can attract and retain diverse talent. Click here to learn more about Empowering Partners’ online course and executive coaching.