Maximize Group Engagement

Maximize Group Engagement

“People keep turning our meeting into a political debate. No one is listening to anyone,” said Lillian, a middle manager. She asked, “I want to facilitate a discussion where everyone feels included and we all learn from one another. Is that even possible?”

“Absolutely,” I said, “No one needs to railroad people and no one needs to feel left out or pushed out. While you can’t control others’ behavior, you can provide the structure to maximize group engagement and care for each team member. Do you want me to suggest a structure you can try?”

Lillian said, “Yes, please.”

The structure

The structure provides the space for everyone to slow down and shift mindless reaction to thoughtful response. The structure includes:

  1. Background information
  2. Communication guidelines
  3. Steps for implementation

Background information

Even when people are conscious of cultural differences, unconscious assumptions can kick in even before we realize it and block communication. For example, studies show both men and women are more likely to interrupt and talk over girls and women than they are over boys and men. Since this is true even in scripted television shows and movies, we need to be aware of the impact unconscious practices can have in group settings.(1)

It’s not only happening to women, however.

It may be helpful to know that people from any historically marginalized group, women, people of color and those who are differently abled, may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss, even when they’re asked to speak up.

Being alert to this is especially important for those of us who are part of the dominant culture. In the U.S., people of dominant culture can 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 the speakers rather than the listeners, blocking genuine engagement for the whole group in general and people of historically marginalized groups in particular. Being aware of and alert to our own and other people’s context, allows us to adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect for our own and their circumstances. This is cultural intelligence in action.

To counter dominant culture tendencies so that everyone has the opportunity to speak up, we can intentionally set in motion new guidelines for speech and behavior. That way, we won’t miss valuable front-line input because of one-way communication habits. Here are some guidelines we can use:

Communication guidelines

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

Steps for implementation

As the leader, say: “Because everyone’s ideas are important to the group dynamics, we’re putting in place Communication Guidelines.” You can also explain that because these guidelines are not necessarily intuitive and may run counter to some people’s culture, it can be initially uncomfortable for some participants to speak and act this way. But with practice the awkwardness will pass. As the guidelines become the new norm, the upside is, everyone will feel more valued, heard and seen. A genuine authenticity among the group members can show up, along with ever greater engagement and collaboration. Here are some steps you can now take:

  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 examples of what each one might sound like.
  4. Begin your discussion by asking an open-ended question, such as: “What are the needs?” or “Who does this work impact?”
  5. Express appreciation out loud regularly (especially at first) when someone uses a guideline.


The leader 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 one another’s experiences – even if they didn’t agree. She said, “Now, rather than dreading the next meeting, I can’t wait to get back to the group and keep the conversation rolling.”

Engagement, productivity and collaboration all get dinged when conversations take a bad turn. To get from workplace drama and factions to collaborating teams, we can set in motion a new norm, a culturally intelligent 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, seen and heard. How people feel is essential to growing productivity, engagement and collaboration in any organization.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD

So often people just don’t have the language or skills to talk and work with people who seem different. Self-study can be a great way to get started. Click to learn more about Empowering Partners’ new online self-study course: Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence.


  1. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her. New York: Atria Books
  2. Distefano, J. & Mazevski, M. (2012). “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics:
  3. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.
Police Chief Critiques Cultural Intelligence Course

Police Chief Critiques Cultural Intelligence Course

Empowering Partners, LLC is pleased to announce we’ve just launched a complete online self-study course, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence,” on how to acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset for your organization. Chief Carter (not his real name at his request), a police chief in the St. Louis metro area, was kind enough to be an early reviewer of the course. The following conversation followed his critique.

Chief Carter said: “We need to overcome the ‘defensive posturing’ of people in my profession. I find police officers actually do want to explore the topics of policing and race, diversity, bias and minority engagement but are unsure of how to engage. So often though conversations don’t get past judgment, blame and finger-pointing which is what puts people on the defensive. So I’m always looking for ways to learn how we can be and do better.

Amy: “I understand. Blame and shame drive people away. Can you give me an example of what you’re on the lookout for?”

Chief Carter: “Last year I was at a Police Chief conference with over 100 Police Chiefs and over 100 School Resource Officers. The Anti-Defamation League [ADL] offers a course entitled ‘Implicit Bias.’ Only seven of us showed up for the class and perhaps two of us were Police Chiefs. I think so few showed up because of that perception: ‘This’ll just be another one of those classes where we’ll be criticized and judged for being in law enforcement.’

During the class, I noticed a lot of engagement, though, because the instructors from the ADL were accepting and not judging. They asked questions and allowed the participants to share their perspectives and become educated on issues that relate to law enforcement. It was a great interaction, but that perception of blame prevented many from attending.”

Amy: “Sounds like acceptance and #curiosity opened up an opportunity for constructive conversation, at least for those showed up. Too bad more conversations aren’t like that.”

Chief Carter: “Yes, that’s why I like how you started your online course teaching openness and curiosity. I like the five C’s for constructive conversation. ”He was talking about…

  1. Curiosity
  2. Contemplation
  3. Courage
  4. Context
  5. Compassion

“I think this is an accurate description of what it takes to stay open and talk through tough topics with people who have different opinions. In your course, I like how you immediately provide an example of how to use the 5 C’s to overcome the defensiveness people feel—and not just people in law enforcement. Your story “Connection, not Correction” is a good example of the kind of interaction that’s possible with cultural intelligence.”

Amy: “How do you use curiosity?”

Chief Carter: “This definition from your course is good, ‘Curiosity is the interest, intrigue and wonder about people, places and systems that are new and different.’ When I read that definition, I was reminded of the two Black coordinators I worked with from a group called Stand United. They came to our area for a protest march. After the protest, they asked to talk with me and other police chiefs about law enforcement perspectives, culture and reform.

I recall many police officers and their chiefs and the people representing Stand United wanted to engage in these discussions. We were all genuinely curious and recognized the opportunity to learn more about the other side. We were all in the same boat—we wanted to be educated on the other culture without being criticized or judged. This led to amazing discussions and understanding for both groups.”

Amy: “It’s awesome how you all were able to overcome any defensiveness and learn together. To come to that place of shared understanding, it sounds like everyone was more than just curious. It took #courage to slow down and open up the space for listening and learning together. In that space, you found #compassion for each other’s different contexts and vantage points. All five C’s were in play there.

“Was there a part of the course that helped you slow down to learn more about each other?”

Chief Carter: “Two things. I liked the one-minute meditation videos. They’re of high value in my opinion, because they allow reflection and focus. We have training where they teach us combat breathing for high-stress situations. Also, I liked the questions you have in the section, ‘How to Express Curiosity and Wonder.’ You said: ‘To get more information so you can appreciate about another person’s experience, you can ask:

  • Do you mind if I ask you a question?
  • What has been your experience?
  • How did you feel about that?
  • What was the impact of my words’

That was helpful, especially the last question. Law enforcement, and people in general, don’t realize how their words are coming across to other people.”

Amy: “It sounds like you’ve become aware of the impact of words. Do you have an example?”

Chief Carter: “In our talks between minority communities and law enforcement, we’ve discussed ‘trigger words,’ words that can instantly put people on the defensive and yet we have no idea of their impact. I noticed one of the first things you did in the course was build a common vocabulary.

“When I was talking to a member of the Black community, he relayed to us that he felt defensive when he heard a White person say ‘All Lives Matter.’ To him, the White person was minimizing the traumatic history of Blacks in America. Similarly, I’ve had White people who have said that they felt the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ minimized their belief that their life was equally important because it didn’t include everyone else. Both valued lives and wanted to feel seen and heard but didn’t seem to know how their words impacted others. There are words and concepts which have been relayed to me through various conversations that destroy communication by instantly putting participants on the defensive. It’s valuable to have discussions to identify these inflammatory words and phrases so we can understand one another’s perception.”

Amy: “It is important to understand how our words impact people. What tool in the course stood out to help with softening and learning how others perceive things?”

Chief Carter: “One tool I particularly liked was the S.T.O.P. technique. It’s a good de-escalation strategy that can be applied in law enforcement and the private sector:

  • S = Slow down…
  • T = Take three deep breaths…
  • O = Observe your emotion, your assumption and how the other person reacts and, if you’re safe…
  • P = Proceed with curiosity and wonder

This example in the course of how to use S.T.O.P. could prevent many different issues that law enforcement may have to eventually intervene on. Good job on that.” He was referring to this conversation:

  • Jason made a racist remark.
  • Mandy practiced S.T.O.P. and asked: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
  • Jason: “Sure.”
  • Mandy: “What happened that made you so pissed off?”
  • Jason: “The company needed to increase their affirmative action numbers; I have the least seniority here, so they let me go at the end of this month.”
  • Mandy: “Ouch! That’s gotta be tough!”
  • Jason: “You’re not kidding. I have no idea how I am going to pay the bills while I look for another job.”
  • Mandy: “That sounds scary. Let me know if you want to put our heads together and brainstorm.”
  • Jason: “I appreciate you understanding. I’ll let you know.”

Amy: “Mandy slowed down with S.T.O.P. and showed she really felt for the guy, didn’t she? How does that kind of compassion come into play in your work?”

Chief Carter: “Compassion is definitely one of the foundations for dropping that defensiveness and opening up dialogue. Dignity and respect in all situations work great. I suggest to my command leaders to take a breath, get centered and quiet and then take a look at the different sides to an issue before acting.”

Amy: “Like S.T.O.P.”

Chief Carter: “Exactly.”

Amy: “Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about the course?”

Chief Carter: “One thing I appreciate is how you help people think about hiring, retaining and promoting culturally diverse people without creating an environment where those of us who are of the dominant culture don’t feel left out. I appreciated the section about the need for diverse perspectives.” He was talking about this section:

“When we hire, we look for experience for some roles, but, in all roles, we look for unique perspectives, personalities and passions that truly believe the next best innovation or process could come from anyone, even themselves. From there, we keep shaping an environment of active listening, experimenting, collaborating and applauding mistakes as a step on the road to success. We also build a system to document our successes so we know how to replicate them and our mistakes so we only make them once.”

“Also,” the Chief Carter kindly added, “I want to offer my sincere appreciation for your endeavor to unite diverse groups through the prompting of needed discussions on sensitive topics. Your compassion and motivation to bring people together is a testament to your good core values and is evident throughout the course.”

Amy: “Thank you, Chief Carter. Coming from someone in your position of influence, your words mean so much. Also, I deeply appreciate your willingness to review the course and help me understand how curiosity, contemplation, courage, context and compassion are vital to the work you do to keep the public safe.” -Amy Narishkin, PhD

To learn the skills and feel confident working with anyone who seems different, click here to register for or learn more about the course, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity, Diversity and Collaboration with Cultural Intelligence.”