After teaching a breakout session at the annual conference of the National Association of Women in Construction, a Latina American woman emailed me a question. Elena (not her real name) said, “It was such a pleasure meeting you at the conference and attending both of your workshops. I was fascinated by the topic and appreciate your wisdom. I walked out of our workshops with a much deeper understanding of how people can inadvertently and intentionally minimize others, making them feel invisible. I realized I make that mistake too and want to become more aware of how I’m coming across to others. It’s made me hungry to increase my cultural intelligence.”
In the workshop, I had explained that cultural intelligence (CI) is what enables a person to accept another’s perspective and choose words and actions that show genuine respect. According to the Intercultural Development Inventory®, there are five stages, or core mindsets of cultural intelligence: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation.(1) The IDI® is an online inventory that assesses an individual or group’s level of cultural intelligence, their level of ability to talk and work with people who are different. Fully 66.8% of the population around the world are found to be in the mindset of Minimization which is why Elena easily recognizes it happening.
Back to the story
Elena continued, “Now that I have an understanding of what’s happening, I recognize how much it hurts when someone minimizes me. For example, in a meeting I was in, a woman said, ‘We just need to get over worrying about foreign-born nationals.’ I’m an immigrant; that statement hurt, a lot. So my question is … how do I stop myself from getting immediately offended when a person says something like that? It’s especially hurtful when a white person says it.”
Being minimized or made to feel invisible often feels like a hollow ache or even a kick in the gut – and sometimes both. It hurts every one of us.
While it hurts us all, it’s important for whites (and people who identify with the dominant culture of any organization) to know that, after years of living in a society with systemic minimization, people of color, women and those who are differently-abled may hesitate to speak up. They hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss. When you’re from a historically marginalized group, these are real risks even when asked to speak up by a boss. Because there are no guarantees, minimizing remarks like the one Elena heard from a white woman, are especially deflating.
Back to our conversation
I said to Elena, “There’s nothing more maddening when someone says we ‘just need to get over it.’ Like we talked about in the workshop, cultural intelligence starts within, with compassion for yourself. You actually can’t feel for another until you feel for yourself. So, when someone makes an alienating remark like that woman’s, your power lies in feeling your feeling and getting contemplative,” I told her.
“When you feel anger, slow down, take a breath and…
- Acknowledge your emotion.
- Accept your heartbreak as part of your reality.
- Appreciate your courage.
- Act from a place of compassion.
These are four steps I taught Elena…
- Acknowledge your emotion and your history. Being made to feel invisible time and time again is wearing on a soul. It takes courage to acknowledge your feelings especially when you get so little affirmation in society. Acknowledging allows you to…
- Accept your heartbreak as part of your reality. You might ask, ‘What could that possibly accomplish?’ If we don’t accept both the heartbreak and beauty of our lives, resistance, self-protection and denial set in. That’s what cuts us off from experiencing our own and others’ humanity. That’s also what cuts us off from being our genuine selves and genuinely getting to know others. Acceptance is what allows you to…
- Appreciate your courage, the courage it takes to not react to ignorant remarks but instead respond, in your time and in your way. Take the time and space you need to soften your gaze and genuinely appreciate yourself, and the heartbreak and beauty of your own reality. Create space around that aggressive remark and wonder if it was made without forethought, out of ignorance of others’ experience. With greater understanding, your gaze softens, compassion grows and you see opportunities for collaboration and innovation that weren’t apparent before. Appreciation is what allows you to…
- Act from a place of compassion, which can take a minute, an hour or a week to find. Love is more of an action than it is a feeling.
Before you act, ask and answer for yourself two questions, in this order…
- “What do I need to care for me during this tender time?”
- “What is mine to do in this situation?”
Depending on the situation, your safety and your head and heart space, you could…
- Write an angry letter that you never send.
- Share your heartbreak with a trusted friend, colleague or mentor.
- Tell the person how their words (or actions) made you feel and see if they’re open to conversation.
- Point out to Human Resources alienating words people use and encourage training.
- Talk with your boss about how they want aggressive remarks handled.
As you acknowledge, accept, appreciate and act, you are breaking the cycle of people (including you!) feeling sidelined, silenced and invisible. You’re also upending systemic minimization.
Last bit of the story
I asked Elena, “Please email back to let me know how this information lands on you.”
Elena replied, “Thank you for this, Dr. Amy. I read it a few times and wanted to take a few days to let this information sink in before letting you know how this landed on me.
“I think what you are telling me makes great sense. I also know it is easier said than done. But I now have a roadmap to follow next time I come across ignorance that may offend me. Thank you again!”
As a white person practicing and teaching cultural intelligence, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from under-represented groups who are unaccustomed to being heard. It’s particularly important for me to create a space where they feel safety and trust. Each time I have a conversation with a person from a different background, I strive to use the four steps. It takes a bit of extra time, but it’s so worth the effort, because I get to talk and work with people I never would have had the privilege of knowing before. People like Elena! –Amy Narishkin, PhD
Who do you know in your network who would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.
- Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
- Photo credit: Kasia on Unsplash – https://unsplash.com/photos/6PTtAvA6Chk