“I want to facilitate a discussion where everyone feels included and we all learn from one another. But instead of sharing their experiences and perspectives, people keep turning it to a political discussion and no one is listening to anyone,” an exasperated professional facilitator told me.

As a leader of any kind – including a discussion leader – we can intentionally set and compassionately enforce guidelines for effective cross-cultural conversations. Communication, innovation, productivity and profit all get dinged when conversations take a bad turn, leaving some feeling sidelined or silenced and others pridefully superior. I’ve developed a series of practical guidelines based on my experience and several lists I’ve seen over the years. Feel free to try them out.

Communication guidelines

  1. Affirm another’s experience, whether or not your experience is the same
  2. Listen actively – hear the person out
  3. Check the impact of your words rather than explaining the intent
  4. Honor confidentiality
  5. Share airtime and let someone finish talking
  6. Speak from your own experience – use “I” statements
  7. Say “Ouch” if you’ve been hurt
  8. Say “Oops” if you mess up
  9. Express curiosity and wonder with gentle questions

Why they work

These Communication Guidelines suggest behaviors and words that build community and encourage relationships. They are the first step in building cultural intelligence and a community of compassion. They work because we have a nearly universal tendency to react instinctively to differences as bad. Even when people are conscious about cultural differences, our unconscious assumptions kick in even before we realize it.(1) For example, studies show men and women are more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women than they are boys and men. Since this is true in even scripted television shows and movies, we each need to be more alert to our impact in group settings.(2)

Being alert is especially important for those of us that are part of the dominant culture. We inadvertently make ourselves the center of the conversation, interrupt others and offer unsolicited solutions. We can come across as the knowers rather than the learners, and speakers rather than the listeners to the detriment of the whole group in general and non-dominant group members in particular.

To counter these dominant culture tendencies, so everyone has the opportunity to speak up, we need to intentionally set in motion new guidelines for speech and behavior. As a result, we won’t miss valuable front-line input because of one-sided communication habits.

How to get started

As the leader, you’ll want to explain that because everyone’s ideas are important to an innovative team, we’re putting in place Communication Guidelines. Because the rules are not necessarily intuitive and may be counter to our cultural norms, it can be initially uncomfortable for some participants to speak and act this way. However, with practice the awkwardness will pass. As the guidelines become the new norm, everyone will feel more valued, heard and engaged. A genuine authenticity among the group members can show up, along with greater collaboration and innovation.

The steps for implementation are…

  1. Post the Communication Guidelines and ensure everyone has their own copy.
  2. Ask someone to read them aloud.
  3. Review each guideline and ask for example of what each one might sound like.
  4. Begin your discussion by asking an open-ended question.
  5. Express appreciation aloud regularly (especially at first) when someone uses a guideline.
  6. Close by asking: What did we do well? Where can we do better?

How to maximize participation

Because individuals and teams that communicate and collaborate with cultural intelligence increase profit lines for organizations by as much as 43%, a leader will want to ensure equal participation.(3) Considering cultural differences can show up between ethnic, national, gender, generational or even departmental groups, here are two ways to maximize participation.

  1. To allow a leader to focus on content in a meeting, another group member can be assigned the role of Process Leader. Using the Communication Guidelines as a foundation, the Process Leader is given explicit license to compassionately curb the dominance of any individual, interrupt those talking freely on behalf of more reserved members and invite participation from members who are more silent.(1)
  2. Also, if diverse types and talents, including introverts or people from other countries are not accustomed to U.S.-style meetings, the leader can solicit detailed e-mails about the topic before the meeting. The leader can ask, “What are your ideas?” One leader discovered that, “to his surprise, he received very thoughtful responses from those who had been most quiet during the past meetings. He tried to deliberately bump into team members in the hall or cafeteria, and chat with them about the issues. He also encouraged them to do the same with each other, and to share the outcomes of their discussions with him. He kept in frequent contact with the team members over the phone, and again encouraged them to do the same with each other.”(1)

After we talked about everything I’ve shared here, a week later, the facilitator whose discussion kept dissolving into politics called back to tell me how well her next meeting went. She was thrilled that as she introduced and gently enforced the guidelines, no one railroaded the conversation. Everyone stayed on topic. Participants allowed each other to finish their ideas and affirmed other’s experiences – even if they didn’t agree. Now, rather than dreading the next meeting, she couldn’t wait to get back to the group and keep the conversation rolling.

To change workplace diversity drama and factions forming into collaboration and productivity, we can set in motion a new norm, a new system for communication. This allows leaders to gain the full strengths of their diverse workforce and build organic collaboration and retention because people feel valued. How people feel is important as a means to greater productivity, innovation and profit.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD


  1. Distefano, J. & Mazevski, M. (2012). “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics.
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her. New York: Atria Books
  3. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.
  4. Gades, S. Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/fIHozNWfcvs

If there’s someone in your network who would benefit from having this information, please feel free to share. To recruit, retain and promote top talent from diverse backgrounds, leaders can create a culture of safety and belonging for everyone in their organization. With a PhD in Adult Learning, Dr. Amy works with CEO’s, management teams and group leaders to develop the skills and heart for cultural intelligence so people can feel free to talk and work with just about anyone! For more information, contact: [email protected]