“I struggle with people who make ignorant remarks,” Larry explained. Larry has his own internationally renowned HR consulting firm. “With my work, I’m all over North America and meet a lot of different people. With all the talk in the media, clients want to talk about race, ethnicity and heritage. What blows me away is that I actually bump into folks who think racism doesn’t exist, that it’s just a construct of the media. That makes my blood boil.”
Larry went on to say, “So occasionally I’d challenge their views, ‘Well, can you imagine growing up in the 60’s? There was still lynching going on when I was a child. That wasn’t the media. That was reality.’ They’ll say, ‘But that was a long time ago.’ So I’ll say, ‘If your grandparents were subjected to this, it’s still very much a part of our reality.’”
Larry said, “I’m really challenged with not losing my temper.” he told me. “But if I don’t challenge it, I’m complicit with their line of thinking. I’ve backed off on a lot of discussions because there just doesn’t seem to be solution.”
Amy: “Sounds like you want to speak up but there’s almost no point because it’s not going to change their mind. They’ll just defend their position. But if you remain silent, that suggests you agree with what the person just said. So you’re feeling kind of stuck?
Larry: “Exactly! How do I respond to an ignorant remark without totally alienating the person?”
Amy: “Can I give you example of what you can do?”
Larry: “I’d appreciate it.”
Amy: “I remember sitting across the table from a CEO at a coffee shop a few years ago. He knew about my work teaching cultural intelligence.”
The CEO said to me, “‘I just don’t understand why those people take a knee on the football field.
Amy (to the CEO): “I understand. What prompts you to say that?
CEO: “They’re not being respectful. I served. That flag means a lot to me.”
Amy: “I get it. It hurts your heart they’re not being respectful. Our flag means a lot to me too. My husband, four kids and I rode our bikes, along with 20 of our French cousins, 335 miles from Paris to the beaches of Normandy over a six-day period in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-day. And do you know what struck me the most about our journey? It was all the Allied flags along the way!
“You know how in the U.S. the American flag always flies higher than all the other flags it’s posted with? Well in France, throughout Normandy, the Allied flags – British, Canadian, French and American – all fly at the same height. That’s how much the French still appreciate the sacrifice we made to help secure their freedom. Our flag means that kind of freedom.”
CEO: (nodded) “Thank you. You get it.”
Amy: “May I offer another perspective?’
Amy: “What might it be like for a man – who is not on the field in his football uniform but on his bike in jeans – to be perceived as a threat most every day of his life? Just driving his car, he’s in danger. Could it be that he doesn’t have the same experience under the American flag that you and I have?… I actually wonder if taking a knee is maybe a quiet respectful way to protest the fear he feels for his life?’
“The CEO was quiet,” I told Larry. “Then the CEO said, ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s an excellent point. Thank you.’”
Connecting, not curing
I could tell Larry was intrigued. I continued, suggesting that both these stories – honoring the Allies of World War II and Colin Kaepernick’s quite protest – have the power to influence change, but we need to pay attention to our approach. I told him, “In the scenario you shared, there’s a possibility that the person will feel attacked, maybe even feel blame or shame. When we approach a conversation with an attitude of curing rather than connecting, the person will likely shut down the discussion. That was the core point I hoped Larry would take away from this conversation.
- Something’s wrong with you; I’m okay
- You’re ignorant; I’m enlightened
- You’re wrong; I’m right.
That can be rather off-putting! However, connecting communicates that we (both parties) can…
- Work toward a mutual understanding
- Feel brotherly (and sisterly) love and compassion for one another
- Ensure we both feel valued, heard, seen and engaged
Connecting by appreciating another’s context is cultural intelligence. A key construct of cultural intelligence is appreciating another person’s perspective and adapting our behavior to show genuine respect.
In U.S. culture, and in many of the organizations in it, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic that is often quite apparent. And if we’re not culturally intelligent, that competitiveness can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. Because of this cultural characteristic, we can inadvertently 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 be the winner. Afterall, we’re right, right?!
But within that either/or set-up, one person wins and the other loses. That’s a problem because the outcome can never be 100% positive. If anyone loses, both parties lose. They both lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People and families lose connection; organizations lose productivity.
So how do we all win? We know we’ve really “won” when compassion and understanding are felt by both parties.
Five steps for responding
To make sure you both win, there are five steps you take when you find you’re in a situation like Larry’s:
- Slow down; notice your assumption and imagine how they feel.
- Hear the person out.
- Stay open and curious – their statement is not a personal attack on you, they’re talking from their own experience and pain.
- Paraphrase what they said and affirm their experience, even if it’s different from yours. This does not indicate agreement; it indicates you understand how they feel.
- Ask permission to offer a different perspective.
I said to Larry, “I noticed when you were asking the question that you were pretty frustrated. I felt for you and heard you out. Did you happen to notice after you shared your story, I paraphrased your feelings about the predicament you were in? I only offered a different perspective after you gave me permission.
Larry said, “I see it now.”
“That was intentional,” I told him. “It could be perceived as manipulative, but it wasn’t. I actually felt compassion for your situation because I’m often in it. Because of my work, people will say things to me that hurt my heart. If I hope to influence another person’s way of thinking and acting, I need to stay in relationship with them rather than alienating them. My sense that’s your intention too. Do these steps help?”
Larry said, “They do. You’ve showed me there’s another way I hadn’t seen before.”
When we step outside the binary win/lose scenario, we discover a more spacious third way. Engaging in neither fight nor flight, we discover we can reach a shared understanding with another where both parties win and genuine connection is created.
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, not at the office. However, it’s the exclusion of these words in our work, organizations and greater society that marginalizes entire groups of people. It can minimize or even rule out important experiences we can all learn from and stifle the communication and innovation that move us forward in life and business. Just imagine the opportunities for genuine connection and vital action when we slow down, show compassion and work in solidarity with one another. –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD
- Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash
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