When someone is in crisis or the whole world is exploding in pandemics and protests what do you do? Studies show most of us respond by minimizing our differences trying to rationalize the crisis down to nothing, invalidating (often infuriating) the person(s) in crisis. Or we minimize by “me tooing” with our own comparable story or we just plain-old ignore what is happening right in front of us. And some of us decide to polarize by going into denial or opposition. Why? Because we don’t know how to respond.

These five steps help you respond to almost any crisis as a compassionate human being:

  1. Focus the discussion on the other person: “Would you mind telling me your story and what you’ve come to understand?” Steer away from centering a conversation on yourself (your thoughts, feelings or experience). This conversation is not about you, its about uncovering the root of the crisis and the other person(s) experience, not yours.
  2. Be a listener and learner in a conversation: “Would you mind telling me more about your experience? What has happened to you?” Steer away from being the speaker and knower of truth. This is not the movies – a white person is not going to solve all the problems with a witty speech.
  3. Affirm the other person’s experience, even if their experience is different from yours: “It sounds like that was tough for you.” Steer away from sharing what you think is a comparable experience that you have had. Let yourself feel what you are hearing.
  4. Show compassion as you listen. Follow these 3 Steps.
  5. Check the impact of your words: “What was the impact of my words on you? Did you feel like I heard you well?” Steer away from being concerned about your intent when you speak, your impact is more important.

When I first started in this work of understanding racism, culture and cultural intelligence as a white woman, I didn’t know how to respond to crisis either. Without knowing how to get it right, I originally thought it would be better to minimize our differences and say nothing at all. But not recognizing a person’s pain, makes the problem worse. It strains a relationship. It hurts the other person. Initially, I just didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand the context of why people protest and how to uncover the cause of people’s pain.

If we don’t know, we need to learn the history and context of people’s pain. There are Anti-racism Resources to help parents, teachers and leaders understand the history of exploitation and context of race in America. For my fellow whites, learning history from this perspective for the first time can be initially heartbreaking and undesirable. But stick with it. Years ago, my mentor suggested that it doesn’t help to avoid it but instead ingest the information at a rate that’s manageable and keeps us in the work; it’s worth it.

I realized I was going to need to know history to engage in culturally intelligent conversations. I also recognized I needed to get to know people who are different from me. How does a white gal from the burbs relate to a black man in the city center? How do you talk with someone different from you at work? How do you be an ally with a person at your place of worship or recreation? The answer is with cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect. When we feel the freedom to talk and learn with people who hold different perspectives and have distinct backgrounds, we become open to new possibilities for relationship, productivity and positive change.

Why compassion

What I’ve learned over time is that central to cross-cultural conversations is the experience of being understood by another. Each of us has a deep need for human connection. Even when my experience is different, I can express compassion. When I do share compassion, I am working to hold space for the other person to authentically show up, be accountable, work through problems and be successful. I work to keep the focus on them so they feel valued and heard.

What we gain by listening

In capitalist societies, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic that, if we’re not culturally aware, can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. We can get caught up in trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong in a conversation.

We can get attached to the idea that someone is a loser and someone is a winner, and we want to win. But in that zero sum construct when one person wins, the other loses. It’s either our loss or theirs; in each case both parties lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People lose connection. Organizations lose productivity and opportunities to innovate.

How we win

We know we’ve really “won” when we feel compassion for our colleagues and clients. The survival and well-being of our organizations depend on our collective well-being, not our individual might.

Our collective well-being develops with one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of how people and employees may be/feel exploited, side-lined or silenced. This is where the power of compassion comes into action.

We can notice, feel and respond to systems within our organizations and community that are marginalizing, silencing or excluding people. These systems may include a lack of quality childcare or public transportation; a lack of compassion toward different religious practices or value systems. No matter what becomes apparent in our conversations, we get to notice, feel and respond with compassion and in solidarity.

While words like compassion, feelings and belonging may resonate with you as words that should be used at home with family or in places of worship, it is the exclusion of these words in our work organizations and greater society that aid in marginalizing entire groups of people, minimizing important experiences we could all learn from and alienating us from innovation that moves us forward in life and business.   –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD