The lady initially repulsed me. Her clothes and hair unkempt, eyes bugged out and head was misshapen. For just a moment I hesitated to even hug her. But it was fellowship time in our church, and we’re asked to greet and hug one another. So, I looked at her, asked permission to greet with a hug and held her tight. She leaned in.

Moments later, I found her sitting on a bench in the hall sobbing. Sister Dawn asked me to sit with her as she fetched water. I didn’t want to sit with her, not at all. I didn’t know what I could possibly do to help. But I sat down. I put my arm around her and held her to me.

To my relief, Deaconess Darline came to sit with us. Darline has been a hospital service provider for 30+ years so there isn’t much she hasn’t seen. She put her arm around the lady too. Watching Darline, I decided I must be doing something right. I fought my inclination to leave; I realized had something to learn about compassion.

Dawn brought the water and left. As the lady took a few sips, her tears subsided, she began to tell her story. Huddled together arm-in-arm, Darline and I listened, nodded and said we understood how hard it is. I remember thinking how similar it was to the active listening I do in my work. It was good to know Darline uses the same practice in a crisis.

The lady told us about the physical abuse she had experienced, the resulting babies she’d lost to miscarriage, the husband that had died and the children that wouldn’t see her anymore. She told us she didn’t understand why she was even alive after the beating she had received to her head. I was scared; I’d never experienced such deprivation. We continued to lean in, listen and affirm. Darline asked me to find a protein bar for her to eat. Once I’d found one and brought it back, Darline told me I was free to go back to church if I wanted to but I sat back down with them. The lady said she hadn’t eaten in two days.

As she nibbled on the bar, Darline shared a similar experience, saying she understood the pain. She asked the lady, “Do you know what you need to do?” The lady shook her head. “You need to forgive yourself and those people,” Darline said.

I said, “Darline isn’t saying those people are off the hook for what they did. They’ll get their due. She’s saying to forgive, for your sake.”

Darline responded, “That’s right. You need to forgive because it’s not until you forgive yourself that you’ll be able to take care of yourself.” The lady nodded. She was quiet for the first time.

Dawn came back and asked the lady if she had a coat. She shook her head. Dawn asked me to help look for some clothes. Thinking Dawn had gone that way, I opened the door to the back of the sanctuary; music poured into the hall. The lady was on her feet wondering about the singing she was missing. I went to find Dawn who’d gone to her trunk for used clothes. When I returned, the lady was sitting in the church sanctuary, singing and clapping along with the other congregants.

Darline’s Approach

Later that day, I asked Darline about her approach. She too didn’t have a solution to the problem, at least not at first. Because of her experience, she knew to listen and learn, and a solution would become apparent. In majority culture we tend to want to offer a solution, even when we don’t know the whole problem. Because I didn’t have a “fix,” I wanted to flee and leave it for someone else. However, because I want to practice Acceptance, I acknowledged my feelings of overwhelm and leaned into learning how to express care in a completely new context. I recognized the cultural context as different from my own and because of my fear, found it initially difficult to take appropriate action. So I had to follow another’s lead.

Often corporate leaders who value cultural diversity aren’t trained in cultural intelligence and don’t know how to accept differences and adapt their behavior.(1) This can be a “wicked” problem because cultural intelligence is the link that makes a diverse environment an innovative, profitable culture.

When someone looks or speaks differently, it can be initially repulsive to any of us. However, when a person who’s a part of the “ingroup” takes the time to lean in and listen, bridges of understanding can be built and solutions can be found.

CEOs have seen this problem before. Someone on the team who usually shows great potential and is typically high performing, suddenly starts tanking. What do we do? Maybe their spouse or parent is ill and the strain is wearing on them. So instead of looking only at numbers and productivity, we can relate to the person first, learn what’s happening and how we can help, which in turn helps the company and our heart. Often stress and struggle comes from a tough circumstance and the person wants to manage while managing to be a good employee, but they need assistance figuring out how to handle both. This is a “wicked” problem but with a mindset of Acceptance and a posture of curiosity, resolution can be discovered.

“Wicked” Problem Defined

A “wicked” problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that no one has seen or experienced before. (The term “wicked” here denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.)

How to solve “wicked” problems is an area of research and teaching for Dr. Jackson Nickerson at Washington University’s Olin School of Business. When I told him about Darline’s approach, he said, “I’d like to meet her. She’s a pro.” He explained, “If we want to succeed in solving “wicked” organizational problems, we need to build trust and understanding in order to get the full picture. However, in corporate America, there is often a race going on between building trust and understanding and comprehending the situation sufficiently to come up with a solution. The problem is if we come up with a solution before we build trust and understanding, we’ll fail to solve the ‘wicked’ problem.”

Five Steps for Building Trust & Understanding

According to Nickerson, there are five elements for building trust and understanding and, as a result, being able to formulate a problem and discover a solution.

  1. Spark good feelings. We feel good when the chemical dopamine is released in our brain. Dopamine is released when people experience appreciation. Consider the context. In church, a heartfelt embrace can spark those good feelings; whereas, at work, we can express appreciation for a person’s idea or action aloud or in a note.(2)
  2. Build a common identity. We’re attracted to people who look or think like us. Even when a person seems different, we’re searching for opportunities to communicate we can relate to their experience. A story shared can suggest, “We’re from the same tribe.”(2) Darline shared her own experience which resonated with the lady.
  3. Demonstrate reliability. Do our actions match our words? We need to be counted on to behave in a way that is consistent with what we’ve said.(4) Darline stayed with the lady until she round resolution according to what the lady needed and not what Darline wanted.
  4. Prove you care. We can make a sacrifice at our own personal expense. The most common sacrifices are time, money, and other priorities.(3) Like Darline, we can take the time to be present with someone, particularly when they have a concern by hearing them out and affirming their experience (even if their experience is completely different from our own).
  5. Exhibit competence. Can we effectively accomplish the task before us? “Interpersonal competence is the ability to demonstrate, ‘I’ve got your back,’ or the sense that you’ll be there for your colleague.” Not only can we take the time to hear someone out, we can look for what else might be needed. We can notice what isn’t being said and find a resource.(4)

Trust is emerging as we build understanding and vice-versa. We can’t move into understanding a person or problem without trust; otherwise, people won’t tell us what we need to know. Nickerson explained rather than probing for a solution, we’re probing for multiple perspectives about the situation, challenge and symptoms. The solution almost always becomes apparent when we get to the real root cause. Fostering employee safety and belonging using cultural intelligence is the means to an end for greater job satisfaction, innovation and profit in every business. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

To recruit and retain top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone in their organization. With a PhD in Adult Education, Amy works with CEOs, management teams and group leaders to successfully onboard new recruits by shifting from a mono-cultural to multicultural mindset by developing the skills for cultural intelligence. Learn the skills in six 1.5-hour-long Workshops.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Van Edwards, V. (2017) Captivate. New York: Penguin Books.
  3. Maxfield, David. (Jan 23, 2019) “What to do when someone undermines your role.” Crucial Conversations Blog:
  4. Grodnitzky, G. (2014) Culture Trumps Everything. Mountain Fog Publishing.