“What did we do wrong this time?” Ralph wondered when he saw the email. Ralph (not his real name), who is White, is VP of Operations for a hospital group, and one of the leaders who participates in my monthly Executive Coaching sessions. Because of his position, he’s copied on email complaints directed toward the various departments, in this case Marketing.
In this email, one of the Black doctors on staff expressed frustration about a billboard that depicted just one White doctor suggesting a different reality than the diversity their hospital group employs.
Ralph told us he understood why this doctor was frustrated. He also wondered if the doctor realized the hospital group had other billboards that included doctors of color. He kind of wanted to point that out to him – in effect, to correct him.
I’ll get to why that’s not the best way to handle a situation like this in a moment, but first let’s look at what Ralph did that was good: Ralph could see both sides.
I pointed out to the group of executives that by noticing and naming both his own frustration and the doctor’s, Ralph was demonstrating acceptance. Acceptance is one of the five stages of cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a person to accept or appreciate both their own and another’s perspective and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect.
The five stages of cultural intelligence include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®), an online inventory that assesses an individual or group’s level of cultural intelligence, their level of ability to talk with people who are different. Because 66.8% of the population worldwide are found to be in the mindset of Minimization, Ralph is unique. He is part of the 14% of the population worldwide who have a mindset of Acceptance.(1)
What acceptance is and isn’t
People in the mindset of Acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences and similarities.(1) They recognize the inherent dignity of themselves and others and are accepting of their own and others’ mistakes, imperfections, gifts and circumstances as they are. It’s not that they are any less judgmental than the rest of us, but what they do is lower their initial resistance to a person or situation enough to get contemplative.
Resistance is the opposite of acceptance. Resistance is a pulling away from the reality of another that leads to a rejection of them based on incomplete information. Seeing reality can be tricky because each person has a viewpoint, a view from just one point, that can cloud the lens through which they look.(2)
With clouded lenses or a narrow perspective, it can be awkward talking with someone who has a different perspective. When we feel awkward, a normal response can be to dismiss the other person, blame them for the discomfort or lash out at them in anger.
To get beyond the resistance we feel, a culturally intelligent person knows they can get contemplative. In contemplation, we slow down, take a breath and reconnect our head with our heart.
With head and heart connected, we can see the reality of the situation or the other person, as Ralph did. He had accepted that both he and the doctor had good points. Acceptance is the foundation for the next mindset on the cultural intelligence continuum, Adaptation, the stage in which a person knows how to build on their Acceptance and adapt their words and actions to show genuine respect.
I asked Ralph if he wanted to discuss how to adapt his words to show the respect he feels. He said he’d appreciate that. I suggested he reach out to the doctor, hear about his experience and affirm the doctor’s feelings.
How it works
Ralph asked, “What does that sound like? Do I say, ‘I understand your perspective but here’s the rest of the story?’”
I said, “I appreciate how you started by saying you understand his perspective. But the trick is not just saying it, it’s actually seeking it. With cultural intelligence, the goal is to get to a shared understanding with the other person. That’s how you create a connection.”
I asked Ralph if he wanted words he might use. Ralph said he’d like that.
“You might say, ‘It sounds like you’re frustrated with marketing. The billboard doesn’t represent the diversity of our hospital staff and the hard work of employees of color. That’s got to be tough.’ Then you could drop into quiet. Take a moment to see if he’d be willing to share more about what it has been like for him. Doing that can have the effect of affirming their feelings and experience,
“If you keep the conversation about him, rather than trying to correct or change his mind, you’ll understand more about his reality and he’ll feel heard.”
Ralph said, “It would be a lot easier if he just understood my perspective.”
I said, “Absolutely it would be easier. And it’s opportunities like these that allow you and your leadership team to bring down barriers of communication within the whole hospital group.
“Because you are in Acceptance, you’re well-positioned to appreciate that the doctor is coming from an emotional place because probably all too often he has been sidelined or silenced. That’s why I suggested you acknowledge his feelings and experience. We usually need to do that several times before a person feels truly heard.
Ralph said he would try it and circle back.
Just a few hours later, he texted me that the conversation went well. Ralph said, “At least for me the conversation went well. I’m not sure how it went for the doctor, though.”
I called him and suggested, “This is the perfect time to lean in and show your genuine interest in him. You can call him back and say just what you said to me. ‘That conversation went well for me but what was the impact on you?’” Ralph was intrigued and said he would definitely call the doctor back.
Just a few hours later, he called to tell me he had reached out to the man and checked his impact. That’s when the doctor opened up and explained how he had felt sidelined a number of times over the last few months; the billboard was just the final straw.
He shared how he’d done extra work in medical school to develop his specialty area and how the billboard had made him think his work wasn’t worth the trouble. Ralph told me he really felt for the guy and told him so. Ralph ended the call by letting the doctor know he didn’t need to bury his feelings anymore. He should let him know any time there’s a concern; he would like to address it with him.
The doctor told Ralph he appreciated his understanding and said he could imagine it must be hard to get complaints. The doctor thanked him for listening.
Ralph’s experience was a perfect illustration of the power of cultural intelligence. Because he wanted to build on his Acceptance and turn a doctor’s complaint into an opportunity to listen and show his appreciation, he and the doctor developed a shared understanding. Their relationship became more genuine. The doctor felt valued and seen for the first time in his work with this hospital group.
Connection Not Correction
Ralph realized he may need to get the marketing group to do a better job of communicating internally about their campaign. But before he could do that, Ralph needed to take this first step. When a person has been historically marginalized, whether that’s because of race, gender, age, orientation or ability, leaders discover they’re increasingly more effective when they seek to develop a shared understanding with their employees. Genuine human connection, not correction, allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for everyone in the organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD
Who do you know in your network that 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.
- Rohr, R. (2021) Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media.
- Photo credit: Photo by Zuzana Ruttkay on Unsplash