Resistance to Acceptance: How to Affirm Another’s Identity

Resistance to Acceptance: How to Affirm Another’s Identity

A decade ago, I definitely felt resistance – I didn’t want to have the conversation at all, at least not initially. Knowing my work, teaching and practicing cultural intelligence, a woman invited me to breakfast. She was a transgender woman who wanted to share her story with me, and I didn’t feel quite ready [qualified?] to be supportive in the gender identity part of cultural intelligence. But, like all other intelligences, cultural intelligence is not something you have; it’s something you grow.

I could see this was a growth opportunity for me. I wanted it also to be an opportunity for this woman to feel valued and heard.

While I was well-practiced at withholding my judgment and talking with people who are different from me because of race, gender, orientation, religion, generation and disability, talking with a transgender person was new. Because I felt this conversation would be out of my depth, I knew I’d really need to lean on my cultural intelligence skills as well as my heart. Talking about gender identity was not something my generation did. I come from an era where standard practice is to “shove it under the rug” or “suck it up.”

That approach wasn’t going to work if she was going to feel valued and heard. I saw quickly that this experience would take every element of cultural intelligence that I had been developing:

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

When I’m in unfamiliar territory, I’m inclined to lean in and learn more. I was curious about her experience but I was afraid I was going to screw up and cause more harm than good. That fear was the source of my initial resistance to having conversation.


Resistance is contraction, a withdrawal from a person or situation. To keep ourselves safe, particularly when we come across something new and different, the human tendency is to fight, resist and run away from reality. The fight/flight response is often due to the fact that we have incomplete or inaccurate information. I was pretty sure I had both!

Resistance is what divides us humans and keeps us apart. When I feel that resistance, as a safety measure, I check to see that I’m safe, emotionally and psychologically as well as physically. In this case, I was certainly safe, so I was ready to practice contemplation. Contemplation uses our head and heart to slow down, take a breath, withhold judgment and practice presence.

As my breathing slowed, so did my thoughts. I moved into listening less with a “judge-y” head and more with my heart. It was then that I noticed why I was so afraid; I realized for the first time that I relate to people based on their gender. Even though she was sure about her gender, I wasn’t so sure about her gender.


So to move past resistance, I knew I needed to surrender. Did it matter that I wasn’t sure about her gender? Certainly not if this conversation was primarily about and for her.

With that perspective, I was able to find courage to surrender my opinion, my preconceived ideas and my conditioned thinking. “Surrender” is a word that can conjure up images of losing or giving up. But I wasn’t losing or giving up anything by listening to her story. Surrender is not giving up but rather giving to the moment, the event, the person and the situation.(1)

I was going to be there to give to her.


When I feel resistance and see an opportunity to surrender, it’s usually because I find some person, place, thing or situation is off-putting to me. (There was my bias showing up!) Her experience confirmed nothing I’d been conditioned to believe about men and women or how they should look or act. I knew I probably couldn’t completely move past my conditioning in time for this conversation, but my goal was to listen and value her experience rather than to “fix” either of us.

I knew I could listen with my heart and affirm her experience. The more I learned about her circumstances, her context, the more residual judgment eased off. Acceptance of ourselves and another, each in their own unique context, is a strange but strong and graceful kind of power.

When I surrendered my need for confirmation, control and power and accepted her as being exactly the way she was in the moment, I saw her humanity. I could hear the years of dysphoria she’d experienced and her deep desire to be her more authentic self. To feel peace, we need to concentrate less on what needs to be changed in the world and in others and more on what needs to be changed in ourselves.(1)

With acceptance in my heart and affirmation in my words, I felt compassion for this woman. I distinctly remember two poignant parts of her story that touched me. The first was that, to transition to being a woman, she was taking hormone therapy. She had been warned by the doctor that by taking estrogen, she would be at higher risk for breast cancer. I gently asked, “Do you feel it’s worth the risk?” She said, “Absolutely.” She wanted to embrace her womanhood that much!

The second was how her teenage and adult daughters responded with support. She’d hesitated to come out to them but once she did, they wholeheartedly embraced her transition process -helping her learn how to talk and dress.

At the time of our conversation, I wasn’t sure how I’d done affirming her experience and identity.  Did she feel valued and heard? I wondered. But then I saw her again about three weeks later, across the room at a networking event. I didn’t know if she’d recognize me or even want to talk with me. She caught my eye, and I got my answer. A few minutes later, she came up to me with a big smile, hugged me and asked to join the group of ladies I was talking with.

A few years later a young African American transgender man reached out to me on LinkedIn when he learned about the work I do. He wanted to support my work and share his story with me. This time I was ready. He and I ended up talking for two hours. Ever since he could remember, he didn’t understand why he had to sit on the ladies’ side of church and why his brothers got to wear the comfortable clothes. By the time I met him, he was in his late 20’s, had transitioned years earlier and was happily married to his wonderful wife (who stuck her head into our Zoom call to say, “Hi!”).

Resistance is endemic to minimization

How do leaders, who are developing their cultural intelligence, create an environment where everyone feels valued and heard, even across gender identity and orientation? That’s the question my clients, the executive leadership team of a hospital group were wondering, because people of the LBGTQIA+ community come to their hospitals for care. But before meaningful organizational change can take place, individual leaders and caregivers need to know how to be and what to do when talking and working with people who are different from themselves.

A full 67 percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of cultural intelligence, the stage called “Minimization.”(2) With more than two-thirds of the people in any organization minimizing their own and each other’s differentness, this perpetuates the marginalization of under-represented group members. And because minimizing our own and others’ experience is so normalized worldwide, we’re typically unaware that we’re doing this.

I asked one of the organization’s leaders, “Jenna, before you started developing your cultural intelligence and were inadvertently minimizing yourself and others, how did you handle conversations with people who are from under-represented groups in your hospital?

Jenna responded, “Before, I would have done nothing – not even had the conversation. If it hadn’t been for your training, I wouldn’t have spoken with anyone about it. Before, my assumption was that, because I don’t have a problem with transgender people, why bring it up? Why would I dive into all that awkwardness with questions that don’t really concern me?”

I said, “I get that because, when a person is in the stage of minimization, they don’t tend to think anyone’s experience is particularly different from their own. So it wouldn’t have even occurred to you to bring up the topic because, in that mindset, everyone thinks like you do.” Jenna nodded. “So what’s different now?” I asked.

Jenna said, “With cultural intelligence, I know not to assume I know how it is for other people. Now I know to slow down and wonder what it’s like for them. I’ve learned even if it’s initially awkward, I need to be willing to have the conversation, because people want to talk. People want to share their experience. People want to tell their story.”  -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.


  1. Rohr, R. (2021) Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media.
  2. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  3. Photo credit:  Cecilie Johnsen –
The Five Keys to Unlocking Cultural Intelligence

The Five Keys to Unlocking Cultural Intelligence

“I feel ashamed I had to take a course to be able to slow down and have an intentional conversation with someone who felt so marginalized. Think about all of the other marginalized people and what we, as healthcare professionals, have missed!” said Jenna (not her real name) who is my client, an executive on the leadership team of a hospital group.

I asked Jenna, who is working on a nurse practitioner doctorate, if she’d tell me more about what happened. She explained, “This week, for my doctoral work, we were asked to interview a person who has experienced health disparity, social injustice and/or been marginalized. So, I reached out and was connected with a transgender gentleman.

“During the interview, I thought about the “Head, Heart & Hands” assignment you’d given us after the workshop on compassion. I was careful to lean in and listen with both my head and heart. I also thought about how I could activate the Hand part of the assignment – to take action to show solidarity with him. Because you taught us to listen actively, the 45 minutes with this incredible man will have an impact on me for the rest of my life.”

Head, heart and hands

Jenna described the experience this way.…

  • Heart: “My heart hurt for him hearing how difficult the journey to transition was for him – how he had to travel hours and across state lines for treatments that we are capable of delivering in our region. I can only imagine how he was treated by other healthcare professionals.
  • Head: “My head told me we can – have to – do better for people and their unique circumstances in our community.
  • Hands: “I used my hands to change my signature line to include my pronouns. I know that may seem small, but for me this was an important action I hadn’t taken before, acknowledging people and their identity.” She added, “My head, heart, and hands will continue to look for opportunities to educate myself and our nurses to be better here at our hospitals!”

Jenna recognized a key point in our cultural intelligence (CI) training. If people of dominant culture learn to see both sides but then “go along to get along” while allowing the people of under-represented groups to remain marginalized, that’s minimization in practice. A full 67 percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of cultural intelligence, the stage called “Minimization.”(1) What that means is, on average, more than two-thirds of the people in any organization minimize their own experience and that of others, perpetuating the marginalization of under-represented group members. And because minimizing our own and other’s experience is so normalized worldwide, we’re typically unaware that we’re doing this.

With minimization in play, leaders can be ignorant of the needs and assets of minority communities, which reinforces and perpetuates the status quo in their organization. The status quo is what keeps people of both dominant and non-dominant groups from being their genuine selves at work, stifling collaboration and innovation. It’s also what keeps and an organization from growing their company’s cultural relevance and appealing to a broader market.

But Jenna was able to upend the status quo and fully exercise her cultural intelligence, using her head, heart and hands not only to appreciate this man’s experience but also take initial steps toward meaningful action for herself and the hospital group.

Here’s a question though: If cultural intelligence requires our head, heart and hands, what exactly are we thinking, feeling and doing when we’re in a conversation like Jenna’s?

The five keys

You’ll notice five key elements of cultural intelligence are embedded in Jenna’s story. There is…

  1. Curiosity (in the head): the interest, intrigue and wonder about people, places and systems that are new and different. With her growth mindset, Jenna approached her interview assignment with curiosity. She genuinely wondered about the man and his experience within the hospital system. But curiosity alone wasn’t enough to express cultural intelligence. Though motivating for us, curiosity by itself (without any heart) can inadvertently make another person feel like an object of curiosity. The impact is tokenism and the effect is demoralizing. But Jenna didn’t only express curiosity. She slowed down and got reflective.
  2. Contemplation uses our head and heart to slow down, soften our gaze to practice presence. Contemplative presence is the embodied awareness of your mental, emotional and sensory experience. In contemplative awareness, Jenna prepared for her interview with intention. She looked the person up on LinkedIn to look for common ground, developed a series of respectful open-ended questions and decided her goal for the interview was to deeply listen and develop a shared understanding with the person. When she spoke with him, Jenna practiced presence; she was aware of her own deep sadness about how the system failed the man. But contemplation alone wasn’t enough to express cultural intelligence. Though able to make discoveries in the quiet of presence, she needed courage to pursue what she didn’t know. Because very often we don’t know what we don’t know about another person’s experience.
  3. Courage uses head and heart to understand another person, even though it may feel awkward, scary or hard. With courage, Jenna prepared for the interview. She told me, “I was sweating I was so nervous about talking with him. I didn’t know what I was going to find out.” Yet, even though she knew the conversation could both uncover cracks in the system and highlight her lack of knowledge, Jenna had the courage to go forward with it. When she slowed down and leaned into the potentially awkward and hard feelings, she discovered this conversation was a learning opportunity. She wondered what it had to teach her. Jenna heard the man’s unique story, in his particular context.
  4. Context is using our head to learn the unique circumstances, history and cultural container within which we live, work and play. When we deeply listen to a person who has been marginalized, we come to know their context. Listening to his unique story Jenna learned the impact of this man’s feelings of isolation and alienation. Jenna has seen an increase in trans adolescents who were admitted to the hospital for suicidal ideation. The man told her that, in the last four years, he knew three transgender adults who had committed suicide because they’d felt such gender dysphoria and were isolated by family and society.
  5. Compassion is using our head, heart and hands to hold our judgment a little more lightly, make room for the other’s perspective so we can empathize with them and take steps within our sphere of influence to ensure they feel valued and heard. Jenna was able to hold her judgment a little more lightly as she learned more of the man’s story. As she listened, her heart broke, and she took the initial action step of adding pronouns after her name. Then she began to wonder what action steps she could take so that she and her team could create intentional practices to ensure each patient and healthcare professional in the hospital system feels valued and heard.

So often in our western culture, we think we can think our way into just, compassionate practice. However, that’s not how diversity and inclusion work. Jenna needed all five key elements of her cultural intelligence to incorporate her head, heart and hands into her work.

As she continues to develop her cultural intelligence, Jenna’s actions will expand and embrace more and more people. With cultural intelligence, her sphere of influence will continue to grow. Next month I’ll share what leaders like Jenna can do with their cultural intelligence to affirm others’ humanity across gender identity and orientation. In the coming months, as Jenna and her leadership team learn to apply their cultural intelligence organizationally, I’ll share the effective practices they discover – practices that affirm employee and patients’ experience so no one feels sidelined or silenced. Jenna and her leadership team’s overall goal in developing their CI is continually striving to ensure everyone in their workplace community genuinely feels valued, heard and engaged. -Amy S. 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.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo by Nerene Grobler on Unsplash
Cultural Intelligence Takes Head, Heart AND Hands

Cultural Intelligence Takes Head, Heart AND Hands

One of the executives on the leadership team I was training in cultural intelligence quietly mentioned his Native American background. He stayed on the call after the workshop to tell me about a museum he wanted me to visit. Over the weekend, I went to the museum with the hope of learning more about his Cherokee culture in particular and the lives of the people who’d lived in that part of North America for thousands of years.

As the leadership team was gathering for our next workshop, I told the group about what I’d discovered. I learned the museum holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Indigenous Peoples and Native American artifacts outside of Washington, DC. I shared my frustration at finding a lack of respect for the people, tribes and nations whose work and lives the objects represented. I explained that this privately held collection hadn’t kept up with the standards of today’s best museums, which present artifacts in the cultural context from which the objects originated. Instead, this museum presented the artifacts in its collection as coming from a dead culture, organized and labeled based on the collectors and archeologists who found them. How could this lack of recognition be possible in a museum this well-known?”

I also noticed there was little mention anywhere in the galleries of the white Europeans who had seized and settled the land for their own benefit. Not until one of the last exhibit halls I visited was there a video about the Trail of Tears, a federally mandated westward migration of peoples of five Native American nations from 1837 to 1839. In the video, the narrator mentioned how the American military was “at the time ill-equipped to support people on their journey west.” Because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, more than 150,000 people died in this forced migration! The forced removal of people and families so that white Europeans could settle the land for their own profit was hardly just a ”journey west.”

When it was time to start our workshop, I stopped and took a deep breath and went over the agenda. I was still upset when we began our two-minute contemplative pause, a moment we took for gathering our thoughts and moving into presence with one another.

As I stood there in the quiet of our virtual room, I got out of my head and into my heart space. I became more present with myself and noticed the level of tension in my body and the anger in my gut. With my eyes closed, I leaned into the feeling and wondered what it had to teach me. When I paused and brought my attention to my heart space, I realized I hadn’t acknowledged all the perspectives involved.

Then came the sting of humiliation; I had only considered one point of view. Then, right in that moment of regret, I realized this was a perfect opportunity to practice what I promote.

I said to the group, “You know what? I can do better expressing my cultural intelligence. Would you allow me a do-over?” They graciously agreed. I explained how the contemplative moment gave me the space to notice and name my anger and then shift into appreciation for the fact that the museum was preserving a collection of objects for future generations. There was a good chance they had the best of intentions, and I hadn’t acknowledged that.

After the workshop (ironically) on how to express compassion, the Chief Diversity Officer told me that the most poignant moment in my teaching was when I asked for a do-over and explained my deeper appreciation and understanding for both perspectives. He said, “You showed us how cultural intelligence works; you had compassion for another’s perspective as well as your own and the courage to recognize out loud that you could come to appreciate both perspectives.”

More to learn

But I had more to learn. I shared this realization in an email with a Native American friend of mine who also practices cultural intelligence. She first acknowledged my growth in noticing the lack of cultural context at the museum. Then she invited me to look at yet another perspective.

If I leave it only at noticing and naming what I’d seen, I’ve only used my head and heart. She reminded of what I teach, that cultural intelligence takes our head, heart and hands. We can’t leave out the action piece. If we don’t seek change and take action, we’re perpetuating the cultural blindness, we seek to replace with cultural intelligence. I hadn’t seen it! Cultural blindness unintentionally minimizes difference, which has a disenfranchising effect on people who aren’t part of the dominant culture, group or community.

I slowed down and again leaned into that sting of humiliation and wondered what it had to teach me. I emailed her back and asked, “What did I miss?”

She told me it marginalizes native populations when those who are in positions of power see the need for change but don’t ask for it. After years of being belittled under our society’s systemic cultural blindness, people from under-represented groups don’t have the power to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social exclusion or job loss, even when they’re asked.

She pointed out that, if indigenous people had been given the chance and had equal access to funds, training and archeology degrees, they would have liked to recover their own ancestral items. We cry foul when we hear about Middle Eastern and Asian antiquities in the British Museum and say they should be returned to their source, but in the US we have no problem with private collectors keeping and displaying indigenous people’s cultural artifacts.

The difference with the National Museum of the American Indian in DC is that the artifacts are on loan from the tribal nations. The tribes participated in creating the museum and telling the stories and histories as well as being staff members of the museum.

She reminded me, “If people of dominant culture see both sides but then ‘go along to get along’ while allowing the native heritage to remain co-opted for whites, that’s minimization. If there’s no action, nothing changes and minorities do not have a seat at the table or the ability to live their culture openly. Maybe your action is writing a blog about this and/or the blog is sent to the museum. Or perhaps the blog is sent to a native elder of the same tribe (or their descendants) and you start a dialogue about their thoughts and experience around the museum and its artifacts.”

Obviously, I’ve taken her message to heart and am writing the blog. After the initial discomfort, I realized how much I needed her and her perspective. To fully exercise my cultural intelligence and take action – add Hands to Head and Heart – I need others’ perspectives and strengths. In fact, I need to pause, lean into what is being felt in the moment and, with Head and Heart, consider what all the relevant perspectives here might be. Then I can activate Hands, sometimes with my own action, sometimes in solidarity with that of others or the whole community.

It is within conversations like the ones above that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees and customers, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. These conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build genuine connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody. The key to greater workforce retention, collaboration, productivity and profit rests on everyone within the organization feeling and knowing they are valued, seen and heard. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Photo credit: Photo by Langa Hlatshwayo on Unsplash

The Four Essential Skills of Cultural Intelligence

The Four Essential Skills of Cultural Intelligence

Cultural blindness, or the belief that color, class and culture make no difference, is often well-intentioned but definitely flawed. It inadvertently alienates people of under-represented groups, marginalizes diverse colleagues and drives clients away. Yet fully 66.8% of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory around the world practice this cultural blindness, or minimization on one another, within their organizations. To attract, retain and promote diverse talent and customers, employees and organizations need cultural intelligence, which has four essential skills….

1.     Get to know yourself

Start with yourself. Get to know yourself. Self-knowledge is essential to understanding others. Pay attention to your preferences for working and interacting. Do you prefer a structured day or do you like to go with the flow? Do you like to build consensus before making a decision, or do you prefer to decide without input? How do you build trust? Are you more inclined to trust another because of their accomplishments and timeliness or because of the personal relationship you have with them?

As you notice and name your preferences, you can…

  • Appreciate what’s unique and special about you.
  • Recognize how your preferences have been formed by your background and cultural surroundings.
  • See how your preferences are different from others’ because of how you and they might’ve been brought up.

Our upbringing is so natural and normal to us that we can inadvertently think everyone thinks, feels and reacts the same way we do. This blinds us to recognizing that the people around us have different values, customs and experiences than we do. But as we’re curious about and become more aware of our own cultural preferences (and biases), and how they influence what we think, feel and see, we notice how each of us is unique and uniquely gifted.

It’s important to note that deeply appreciating ourselves, our uniqueness and cultural surroundings is what ultimately gives us the heart and headspace to do the same for others.

2.     Contemplate thought, heart and action

When we’re talking with someone who has a perspective or background that’s unfamiliar to us, it can be unsettling – awkward, even. That’s a normal reaction when you’re first overcoming cultural blindness.

When we’re feeling awkward, one normal response is to shy away in silence or find someone to blame and lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation.

To move beyond that win/lose mentality, there’s a third way. A culturally intelligent person has a third option: contemplation and awareness. Contemplation is the opposite of interacting with others mindlessly, or reflexively. In contemplation, we slow down, take a deep breath, observe our internal reaction and how the other person seems to be reacting and then work toward developing a shared understanding with them.

In this crucial moment of observation, we can hold a little more lightly our habitual reactions and snap judgments, and instead gather more information to make sense of the situation. We ask open-ended questions and seek to understand the other person’s point of view, even if their perspective or experience is different from our own. We might ask, “Would you mind telling me the story?” Or, “What has been your experience?” This is the time to practice humility and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

The benefits of contemplation are that we get to…

  • Control our reaction
  • Get past the awkward part faster
  • Notice our impact on the other person
  • Make a genuine connection with another person

3.     Grow your understanding of others

To overcome cultural blindness, we also need to learn about other cultures — others’ history, customs, beliefs and values. It’s really intriguing to start by tapping into your natural curiosity about another person or group within your experience and focus on their culture. You can read books and articles, watch films and videos and visit new places. Notice how your customs, beliefs and values are the same and different. Before you talk more specifically with another person about their culture, it’s helpful and wise to do your homework and learn as much as possible about your own and their cultural backgrounds.

It’s also helpful to understand that after years of being belittled under our society’s system of cultural blindness (minimization), people from under-represented groups may hesitate to talk with you or speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when they’re asked. As a result, it can take time, compassion and perseverance to build a relationship of mutual trust.

While you’re learning, consider what it might be like to look at the world from another’s perspective. Practice looking at a situation or experience through their cultural lens and experience. Practice compassion and imagine how they might feel and think. Think about how your words and actions might come across to others and check your impact on them. You might say, “What was the impact of my words?”

4.     Build bridges across differences

To upend cultural blindness, a culturally intelligent person builds bridges with others and expresses compassion toward them. This can take courage because they don’t wait for the other person to go first; they take responsibility for their words and actions and are proactive.

The opposite of building bridges is blaming others. There’s little point in asking, “Who’s to blame for the problems in our organization or the disparities in our society? A question like that often makes people feel defensive, triggering a desire to protect themselves. Why is this such a common practice in our society?

While protecting individual rights is rightfully cherished in America, the primacy of individualism can inadvertently fixate people’s attention on finger-pointing and blaming. That cuts us off from others and reinforces cultural blindness. It’s what keeps us from doing the dignified courageous work of showing up for one another. Building bridges, we can:

  1. Express genuine compassion for people who are too-often sidelined or silenced, and
  2. Ask a question that redirects our attention outward, toward a shared responsibility and common good.

To build a bridge, we can ask a better question than “who’s to blame?” We can ask, “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to ensure everyone feels valued, heard and engaged?” A question like this allows us to stop wasting precious time and energy on self-protection, blame and shame and instead consider how we can make a difference, develop productive relationships and participate in systemic change.


When you develop and practice these four essential skills of cultural intelligence, you’ll see a shift, individually and collectively, from thinking about me to thinking about me and you and us. We are then no longer waiting for the other to change but discovering our own and collective agency for bringing about change.

No matter how fractured things seem to be, there’s always an opportunity to slow down, seek to understand and discover how we can depend on our connectedness. Our collective well-being develops one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees and customers, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. These conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build genuine connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody. The key to greater retention, collaboration, productivity and profit rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued, seen and heard within the organization. It’s a journey that’s empowering, enlightening and fulfilling.                        -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Photo by Samuel Isaac on Unsplash

How to Stop Tokenizing People

How to Stop Tokenizing People

“How do you avoid tokenism?” I asked. Because clients regularly ask me this question, I wanted to learn from experts whose work demands that they avoid tokenism. So, I turned to two video journalists, Kuwilileni Hauwanga and Abby Narishkin of Business Insider. They’ve made it their mission to create and produce videos that honor their diverse viewership, including the demographics they represent.

But before I tell you about what I learned from them, first some basics.…


Tokenism is the practice of doing something merely as a symbolic effort – for example, hiring a person who belongs to an under-represented group, only to prevent criticism, meet numerical goals and/or give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.(1) “Tokenism is about a box people are trying to check,” Kuwilileni said.

Why tokenism is a problem

At a time of growing public demand for effective diversity initiatives, tokenism hurts both people and business. Tokenism increases the isolation and alienation of employees of under-represented groups. It also increases their work load and overwhelms them because they have to show greater competence than their dominant-culture counterparts. “I end up taking on more work because I’m the one in the room who has to name the gap, the lack of diversity,” said Kuwilileni. “I look forward to when the white people notice and name the gap and help to find, value and pay the diverse experts.” The stress and isolation of having to carry that extra burden weighs heavily on people over time – lowering engagement, stifling innovation and increasing turnover.

What causes this problem

People’s individual actions do not come out of a void, they are a reflection of a larger system, such as a company and its culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94 percent of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2)

To see the implicit systems that influence the way we think, talk and act, we need to recognize a particular mental model in play within our culture: minimization. Fully 66 percent of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) assessment worldwide are right in the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence, the stage called “Minimization”(3) The percentage is that high because it’s the default mindset of the dominant culture, of an organization and in society as a whole. Minimizing or ignoring different-ness creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everybody has in common and assume others are “like us.”

The approach of focusing on what we all have in common may be well intended in dominant culture but the impact of minimization is dismissiveness of our own and others’ humanity. The result of this collective minimization, or mindlessness of one another’s heart and humanity, is tokenism. And the effect is deeply demoralizing.

How to stop the problem of tokenizing

The problem, then, is not that anybody’s inherently evil but that people have an inherited ignorance of the system. And here’s the good news: If ignorance is the fundamental problem, we are dealing with a fixable problem.

The antidote is to become more aware of the systems that influence us and others, making us less likely to perpetuate them.

To upend minimization, people of dominant-culture can become aware of their culture and its impact on themselves and others, and also recognize that each person’s experience is just one of many cultural patterns.(1)

The journalists’ experience

“How do you overcome tokenization as a manager?” I asked Kuwilileni. She said, “People need to see that their reality is only one of many.” She suggested that dominant-culture group members orient themselves toward people of non-dominant culture in the room and understand and affirm their experience as valid even if it’s different from their own. That will help them to notice who is and isn’t talking, encourage differing ideas and wonder who else needs to be in the room. She said, “When you notice and name the gap, you can begin to address the problem of obscured or silenced voices. In my case, as a black woman, there is a perception that I have to be smaller, less vocal and take up less space.” That can leave some silenced.

I asked Kuwilileni, “What do you hope for?” She said, “I’m excited for the day when the labor doesn’t fall on the handful of non-dominant culture people. That’s not happening now.”

“What would you describe is the ‘labor’ in this case?” I asked.

Kuwilileni said, “I’m looking forward to not having to point out the need for reparative justice and have conversations about why there are no black people here. I look forward to the white people doing that one day.”

I asked, “Considering this current gap, how do you manage your team?” For her, a huge part of it is conscious reporting. To represent people of non-dominant cultures in her stories without tokenizing them, Kuwilileni suggested everyone be trained in what to look for and why we’re looking for it. As a manager, there are questions she asks her team…

  • What is the industry?
  • What’s our goal with this story?
  • Who do we need to represent and reach?
  • Are all groups in that industry represented?
  • How are we finding these people?
  • What else does the story require and why does it require that?

As an example of effective inclusion of diverse voices, Kuwilileni highlighted two distinct stories covered by her team and produced with Abby:

  1. “How the NYPD Became the Most Expensive Police Force in the World”
  2. “Why Millions of Potatoes Are Being Thrown Away During the Pandemic”

“With the Police video, the need at the beginning was clear; we were talking about police violence against black people. We needed a black person with expertise to speak to that,” she said.

As production went on, Kuwilileni and Abby realized they needed more representation from the diverse community that makes up New York City. So in order to get a more complete story, they interviewed people from various backgrounds who could speak to the impact of policing from informed personal and professional experience.

On the other hand, the team saw a lack of diversity as they reviewed the Potato video. But as they dug in and analyzed the “system” around the people in the story, they realized that the majority of farmers in its setting of rural Idaho are white, and the people in the story reflected the community and the expertise needed for that reporting.

How to capture the story

“What do you do to capture stories with diverse perspectives?” I asked Abby, adding: “I’m guessing people from under-represented groups may not be inclined to speak with a white reporter at first.”

Abby said, “You’re right, people don’t always trust me. But that doesn’t mean the story shouldn’t be told.

After years of being belittled under the system of minimization, people of color, women and those who are differently abled may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when asked to speak up. As a result, it takes time to build a genuine relationship.

Abby explained, “As a white person, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from under-represented groups who are unaccustomed to being heard – to create a space where they feel safety and trust. It’s worth the investment of time, though, because I get to meet and talk with people I never would have known before, and Business Insider gets richer, more in-depth reporting.”

Thinking organizationally, Kuwilileni added that it’s huge “to not tokenize and to look around and see where you’re lacking in skill, background and culture in your own company. In our work, if we’re lacking culture, we’re missing money, because we’re missing an entire sector of the market.”

Teams and organizational leaders that acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset outperform organizations that are homogenous or minimize the differences of their diverse workers.(4) As an example, Kuwilileni said, “The highest-performing show on Business Insider is the most diverse; it’s called, ‘Still Standing.’ The show has a diverse network of freelancers all over the world who know what’s going on in their country, and they tell us because we’ve taken the time to build a trusting relationship with them.”

How to build trust

“How do you gain people’s trust?” I asked Abby. She said, “It takes courage. I straight up own my whiteness with new sources and how my cultural context can keep me from seeing other perspectives. I might say, ‘Because of my whiteness, I’m not likely going to see what it’s like for others. Would you mind telling me your perspective so that I can get a more complete story and share it with others who don’t know?’”

To build trust with others, it’s helpful to know that there are two types of trust, one from the head and one from the heart. Trust from the head, or cognitive trust, is based on the confidence that comes from knowing another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. Cognitive trust is built typically through business interactions and the conditions of the situation. A person works well, does good work and is consistent, so they are “trustworthy” – because people in dominant Western culture tend to rely heavily on cognitive trust.(5)

Trust from the heart, or affective trust, is based on feelings of closeness, empathy and friendship. This trust is built through sharing meals, drinks, coffee – social experiences. It’s typically less transactional than cognitive trust. Affective trust is built slowly over time. You share personal time and know one another on a deeper level.(5)

Abby has learned that she needs to develop both kinds of trust when she’s talking with anyone, but particularly people from non-dominant groups. She has learned she can slow down and shift away from the task-oriented, get-it-done behavior of the culture she represents and build a trusting relationship using both her head and heart.

Abby explained, “What I’ve learned is that it’s important to allow for unique reactions to questions I ask. For some people, being asked questions by a white woman can be a trigger of previous emotional trauma; whereas, for others, questions can be affirming of their experience. If someone is feeling tokenized as a result of my questions, I back off and affirm their feelings and respect their request to redirect the conversation or stop altogether. On the other hand, I’ve experienced people who want to be asked about their experience as a person of color or of an under-represented group, and I appreciate and affirm that too.”

When Abby and Kuwilileni express compassion for others within their particular contexts, they’re upending minimization; that’s cultural intelligence in action. It’s when they’re in conversation with people that they’re able to discern what people need to feel safe, and can adjust words and actions to show genuine respect.

Abby explained, “Each person, their experience and their reaction is unique. What’s important is to center the conversation around them, not me, that way they feel valued and heard.”

In any organization, tokenism hurts people of under-represented groups and it hurts the organization. However, diversity has meaning when dominant and non-dominant group member voices count, have influence and are seen as an asset. When members of all groups are working in cahoots, noticing and naming gaps, striving to create a culture where both historically dominant and non-dominant group members together feel heard and engaged, people feel valued, and organizations retain their people.   -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.


  1. Merriam Webster Dictionary:
  2. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge.,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
  3. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  4. Distefano, J & Mazevski, M. (2012) “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics.
  5. Meyer, E (2014) The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. New York: PublicAffairs.
  6. Image: Fath, Randy.
Workplace with Headspace

Workplace with Headspace

“I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out a good professional goal for my engineering manager. Do you have any ideas?” asked Eliza (not her real name) in her monthly Executive Coaching session with Empowering Partners. Eliza is the vice-president of engineering in a mid-size manufacturing firm. She wants to provide her direct-reports and department the headspace for growth and safety so that they all experience greater fulfillment, collaboration and innovation.

The firm has found that their training and leadership development efforts are more successful when based on the insights gained from working with the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®).

The IDI assesses a person’s ability level to successfully engage in conversation with people representing diverse opinions. In terms of cultural intelligence, IDI has found that individuals and groups fall into one of five core mindsets: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance or Adaptation.(1)

Eliza is a leader currently in the mindset of Acceptance. That means she…

  • Has a deepening understanding that each person’s experience is unique to them;
  • Recognizes each person’s inherent dignity;
  • Is curious about people’s differences and commonalities and is able to withhold judgment;
  • Feels unsure of what to do or say;
  • Is open to discovering more approaches for engaging with people.(1)

Eliza was unsure of how to help her engineering manager (let’s call him Tom) develop a professional goal that would be meaningful for him as well as support a safe working environment for his colleagues. So I asked her to notice and name a feeling she has about his behavior that was not contributing to the productivity of his department.

“What does Tom do that is unproductive, maybe even annoying?” I asked Eliza.

VP: “He complains to both his colleagues and me about all his stress.”

AN: “Is he aware of how much he’s complaining about his stress?”

VP: “Not that I can tell.”

AN: “It sounds like he is unaware of how he’s impacting others, and equally unaware of how burdened he feels.”

VP: “Probably. Likely, actually.”

AN: “What could he do differently?”

VP: “Delegate.”

AN: “How’s that?”

VP: “He’s a likeable manager but he takes on too much himself. He has a team, and we also have an engineering firm overseas to support efforts that he’s not utilizing well.”

AN: “Have you told him?

VP: “I’m not sure what to say.”

AN: “You can 1) share your observation of his behavior and 2) ask him how he thinks his behavior might be impacting the people around him.”

VP: “That’s something I can do.”

AN: “Absolutely. What’s helpful about the mindset of acceptance is you’re already able to appreciate his good intentions and contributions to the department. You’re also able to feel annoyed about his behavior and at the same time withhold your judgment until you get more information. This is good because a direct report is often more able to hear criticism when you share your observation of their behavior rather than sharing your opinion about them as a person. At the same time, your growth opportunity and challenge are to try things and figure out the best course of action for him.”

What to do first

To give her a clear sequence for this, I explained, “The first step is to listen to your gut, notice and name your feelings. If you’ll recall, I asked you to first consider what he does that’s annoying. That feeling can point out something that needs to change. In this case, it did; your feeling pointed to the fact that his complaining was a burden to you and his colleagues.

Second step

The second step is to meet with him and share your observation of his behavior. You might say to him something like, ‘Each time we’ve spoken in the last few weeks, I’ve heard you talk about your stress levels. I’m worried about you. What’s going on there?’ Because you’ve pointed out his unproductive behavior, he’ll likely want to justify what’s happening. It’s important that you hear him out and affirm his feelings and experience as valid, even if you don’t agree with what he’s been doing.

“Just so you know, if you don’t affirm his experience as valid, he’ll get defensive and close himself off. To keep him open to learning and growing, you’ll use the inclination of your acceptance mindset to affirm and validate his experience. Because he feels valued and heard, he’ll have the headspace to talk about next steps.

Third step

The third step is to provide tools to help him take responsibility for his own growth. You might say, ‘I’d like to help you formulate a goal that helps you become more aware of your own feelings and actions and the impact they have your colleagues.’”

People don’t typically intend to burden others; they are more often unaware of the burden they’re feeling and how they’re inadvertently transmitting it to others. That’s because, without self-awareness, there is often an…

  1. Incongruence between our feelings and our nonverbal communication and an
  2. Inability to see how we’re impacting others.

To remedy this and create even more headspace for Tom to become aware of his feelings and actions, I suggested a tool to help him – a spreadsheet where he could track his emotions for 2-3 weeks and see what insights arise. To keep it simple, he dates the entry and three times a day – at 8 am, Noon and 3 pm – writes down how he feels (sad, glad, mad, scared or energized). In the last space or column, he writes any insights or questions that come to mind. Helping Tom to slow down and begin to notice his feelings provides not only personal headspace but also communicates the employee’s mental well-being is important to the organization’s overall well-being.

About mental health at work

Even before Covid, research revealed that employees expected managers to care about their emotional wellbeing. Before the pandemic, 1 in 10 Americans had symptoms of depression. Since then, the rate of mental illness had quadrupled.(2)

Many people believe that whatever their mental health challenges are, those challenges don’t belong in the workplace. However, more than 100 studies have shown that, when we have low psychological well-being, or face depression or general anxiety, our job productivity suffers.(3)

Of course, clinical depression and anxiety often require professional help. But we’ve all had moments of feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from other people, from our own values or from hope about the future. These emotions affect us in our jobs and they affect our colleagues. A leader’s compassion is no longer above and beyond, it’s vital to the organization’s culture of well-being.(4)

When a boss acknowledges a direct report’s pain and expresses compassion to alleviate that pain in a way that is meaningful for them, that’s cultural intelligence at work. Cultural intelligence is what enables us to accept others’ humanity and adapt our behavior to create an environment where our employees feel valued, heard and engaged. It also helps us to bust the belief that we should be immune to emotional and cognitive struggle and if only we try hard enough, the struggle will go away.

What happened

Eliza told me she shared her observation with Tom. She described the behavior she’d been seeing and told him she was worried about him and the impact he was having on his colleagues. She asked him to track his emotions and look for opportunities to delegate. After several weeks, Eliza noticed Tom had stopped complaining and was noticing opportunities to hand off some of his work. She told me her own and his efforts were worth it because he is more productive, feels valued and heard and is more supportive of his colleagues.

By accepting her direct report’s pain, rather than belittling or ignoring it, and providing a tool to help him become more aware and accepting of himself and his impact on others, Elliza was respecting his struggle and building trust. She is also creating a culturally safe and intelligent work environment for everyone.

Three-day challenge

Using a head, heart and hands approach, we can develop the self-awareness that allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, as well as increase engagement, collaboration and innovation in our individual conversations and collective culture. For three consecutive days, notice, observe and experience the impact of Acceptance. Here’s how:

  1. HEAD: Observe what thoughts, words and actions correlate with the mindset of Acceptance.
    • Under what circumstances do you notice your curiosity about differences and commonalities people have?
    • Under what circumstance do you particularly notice that you’re unsure of what to do to build a bridge of understanding with another person?
    • What is said and done that makes you notice?
  2. HEART: Notice and name the feelings of yourself and others when there is acceptance.
    • How do you feel appreciating your own and others’ uniqueness and being able to withhold judgment until you have more information?
    • What was particularly heartbreaking or moving when you didn’t know what to do or say?
    • Under what conditions do you feel you can take a risk and try a course of action and see how it goes?
  3. HANDS: Now that you have reflected on acceptance and its impact on you and others, consider what actions you take to show the respect you feel.
    • What words and actions do you already use that help you show genuine respect for another’s experience?
    • Under what conditions do you feel safe taking a risk and trying different ways to engage with others?
    • What policies or practices need to be put in place in your home, community or workplace that allow people to share different perspectives and struggles so that they feel valued and heard?    –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Panchal, N. Kamal, R., Cox, C (Feb 10, 2021) “The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use,” KFF:
  3. Ford, M., Cerasoli, C., Higgins, J. & Decesare, A. (May 7, 2021) “Relationships between psychological, physical, and behavioural health and work performance: A review and meta-analysis,” Work & Stress:
  4. Toegel, G, Kilduff, M & Anand, N. (May 7, 2021) “Emotion helping by managers: An emergent understanding of discrepant role expectations and outcomes,” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 56, No. 2:
  5. Photo credit: Jonathan Daniels:

Who do you know in your network that would like to learn more about how to be a compassionate leader? Please share the link with them.

How Self-Awareness Leads to Self-Confidence

How Self-Awareness Leads to Self-Confidence

Based on each of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence, I’m doing a series of blogs about how to promote mental health in the workplace and the engagement, collaboration and innovation that grow out of it. Last month I wrote a blog about how to move out of the developmental stage of Polarization; this month is about how to move out of Minimization to Acceptance. 

“I can be my own worst critic,” Bryant said to his Ambassador Group. Bryant, a technician at a manufacturing company was talking with his small working group of five employees learning together about how to apply cultural intelligence with both colleagues and clients. Cultural intelligence is the ability to adapt our words and actions to show compassion for ourselves and others amid different circumstances. It’s what enables everyone to feel more valued, heard and engaged at work.

I had just explained to his Ambassador Group that, very often in a conversation, how you show up for yourself is how you show up for others. Bryant put it together that he’s tough on himself, so he wondered how he might unconsciously be impacting his customers and even his family.

Bryant had taken the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®), an online inventory that assesses an individual (and group’s) ability level to talk with people who are different. This is done by measuring five core mindsets and their associated behaviors; these progressive mindsets are: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance or Adaptation. When Bryant found out he was in the middle stage of Minimization (where most commonly people are) he was surprised that he could inadvertently be minimizing himself as well as the people around him.

Bryant asked me, “What can I do to stop minimizing myself and other people? Maybe I’m so critical of myself because I don’t really know that much about myself.” I was impressed with his insight. I said, “That’s been my experience. As I’ve come around to accepting myself as I am, the good and bad parts, I’ve learned to be more accepting of others. But you’re right, you can’t accept (or appreciate) someone or something you don’t know.” We may think we know ourselves pretty darn well but read on and discover how Bryant found deeper self-awareness can lead to greater self-confidence.

Bryant asked, “How do I get to know myself better?”

How to develop more self-awareness

Developing self-awareness is the No. 1 learning opportunity for people in the stage of Minimization. I’d just finished explaining to Bryant’s Ambassador Group that self-awareness has two benefits. Self-awareness allows us to become more appreciative of ourselves as well as aware of the impact we have on our colleagues in meetings and other situations, because developing self-awareness in each team member is key to creating a culturally safe and intelligent work environment.

This is because, without self-awareness, there is often an:

  1. Incongruence between our feelings and our nonverbal communication and
  2. Inability to see how we are impacting others.

To develop his self-awareness, I suggested to Bryant that he keep a journal or spreadsheet and track his emotions. To keep it simple, he could date the entry and three times a day (for example at 8 am, Noon and 3 pm) write down how he felt – sad, glad, mad, scared or energized. In the last space or column, he could write any insights or questions that come to mind, if any.

What happened

Bryant embraced the process; he thought he’d keep his Self-Awareness Chart* for a few weeks and ended up maintaining it for few months. At each Ambassador Group meeting, he reported a new insight that he’d had about himself. One particularly intriguing insight was that, as he noticed and named his emotions on a regular basis, he realized his emotions weren’t good/bad or right/wrong; they were just there, informing him. As a result, he became less a judge and more an observer of his feelings.

The next week he noticed that, by being an observer rather than judger, he was more accepting of himself. He observed, “Rather than thinking so much about how I have missed the mark or shouldn’t feel or think a certain way, I can feel my feelings, take myself less seriously and be more accepting. I’m to see now how the chart makes perfect sense.

“What was interesting was that it was my sister who actually noticed the change in me first. My analogy is like a person trying to lose weight and not feeling like much has been achieved until they bump into someone they haven’t seen in a while who comments on the weight loss. My sister could see what I couldn’t. She saw that I was more confident, more appreciative of myself and pointed it out.

“Having a technical background, I always prefer to work with facts and figures, where there is no ambiguity. Although the chart is not a technical document as such, I found by musing over several weeks of data, I can in my mind revisit those instances and remember and see how my emotions changed, and also the progress over time (for similar scenarios).”

How it helped with work

Clearly, Bryant had learned a lot, so I wanted to see what else he’d noticed. I asked him, “How did tracking your emotions help with work?”

Bryant explained, “I would say the chart enabled me to manage my expectations better and see how to handle situations I had little control over better. For example, I’m pretty introverted, and it’s hard for me when I have to go in cold to a new situation to repair equipment. When I don’t know the people or situation, that makes me nervous, so I can get tough on myself. I saw that pattern in the chart.

Then, when I shared with you and the Ambassador Group how I felt about going into a new situation, you and the group brainstormed ways I can familiarize myself with the company ahead of time. Your solutions of researching the company on the Web to learn about them and reaching out for a zoom call with my contact ahead of time really helped me feel more welcome and in control when I arrived on site.”

By noticing and naming his feelings to himself and then sharing them with a trusted person or group, Bryant could adjust his attitude and actions to be more accepting of himself as well as the situation. From there, solutions started emerging. Bryant said, “Critical self-analysis can help keep standards high, but I believe there is a sweet spot; recording the data helped me readjust and find a balance, find my self-confidence.

“My view is that this is work in progress,” he added, “and the results of the core training you delivered are highlighted in my chart.”

Bryant clearly saw the value of journaling, which can be in the form of handwritten notes, filling in a spreadsheet or making audio recordings. It is important because reflecting on an experience can be as powerful, if not more powerful, than the actual event itself. The purpose of journaling is also to provide yourself with a dated record of events so that progress (and setbacks from which to learn) are documented, dots can be connected and patterns can be noticed. These patterns develop in us self-awareness. Self-awareness allows us to be more accepting, even appreciative, of ourselves and the people around us. This creates more sustainable, genuine working relationships leading to greater engagement, collaboration and innovation in any organization.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Three-day challenge

Discover the head, heart and hands technique we used last month too. Using it, we can develop the self-awareness that allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, as well as increase engagement, collaboration and innovation in an organization. Here’s how: For three consecutive days, notice, observe and experience the impact of Minimization (of self and others).

    1. HEAD: Observe what words and actions correlate with the stage of Minimization.
      • Under what circumstances do you minimize yourself?
      • Who in your family, community or office gets minimized?
      • What is said or done to minimize?
    2. HEART: Today as you observe yourself and others, notice your own feelings and the reactions of others when you or they are minimized.
      • What feelings did you feel you saw in others and how did that observation make you feel?
      • What was particularly heartbreaking or moving?
      • How did this observation make you look at yourself and people differently?
    3. HANDS: Now that you have reflected on Minimization and its impact on you and others, what actions can you take to make sure people you encounter feel a sense of belonging?
      • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for yourself?
      • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for others?
      • What minimizing processes or systems could be challenged at home, in your office or in your community?

*If you’d like me to send you a sample Self-awareness chart, email Who do you know in your family, community or organization that would find this blog helpful? Please share!


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash
Reality Isn’t Harsh

Reality Isn’t Harsh

“I’m just being realistic,” said the VP of marketing and sales.

“Not really,” I said. He looked confused. “What I mean is, there may be more to the situation than you currently realize.” I went on to explain that when we’re stressed out, worried or angry, like he was, many of us fall back to the stage of Polarization.

The VP and I were doing his IDI® Debrief, “Polarization” is one of five stages of development on the continuum of Cultural Intelligence (IDI stands for Intercultural Development Inventory®), and we were talking about where he was on the continuum in that difficult moment.

The IDI reveals that participants are in one of five stages of development on the continuum of Cultural Intelligence. The stages are: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation.(1) He (let’s call him “George”) and his colleagues had taken the IDI because they wanted to know their individual and organization’s ability to engage people with different backgrounds in conversation.

Polarization defined

People and groups in Polarization tend to be overly critical of themselves and others; they think and work from an “us versus them” viewpoint. This binary mindset sees things as good/bad, right/wrong and black/white. I explained that “if we’re thinking things are black and white, that’s not reality. There’s typically more to the story that has not yet been realized or considered.”

The No. 1 growth opportunity for the mindset of Polarization is learning to see the gray areas in people and situations. I said, “If you think about it, none of us is actually good or bad. We’re all a mix, a bit Jekyll and a bit Hyde.” George agreed. When things are seen from a binary mindset, the takeaway tends to be a harsh judgment rather than reality. However, when we slow down and get more information, we are getting more of the truth and able to develop a shared understanding with another. It’s then that we get a fuller and bigger picture. With greater understanding, our gaze softens, compassion grows and we see opportunities for innovation we hadn’t seen before.

An example

I asked George if he could give me an example of where he was feeling things were pretty bleak, with no opportunity. He gave me an example that I paraphrased for him, “It sounds like you don’t want to hire someone away from a good job because you don’t want to put them in a precarious position in your start up. Did I get that right?” He said, “Yes.” “So,” I went on, “if I look for that gray area, let’s call it a dove gray, let me wonder aloud with you: Does your scenario assume everyone is happy in their job or wouldn’t be interested in possibly joining an intriguing effort to launch a new brand?”

He said, “Yes, I hadn’t thought about those possibilities. I see what you mean, I had already made decisions for people I haven’t even met yet.”

I said, “The truth is, reality isn’t harsh.” So I asked George, “As you think about your professional goals, what do you need to do professionally to move out of the polarization mindset so that you can get a broader perspective — so you can practice seeing that softer gray area?” He wasn’t sure. So I asked him, “Where’s you happy place at work?”

“In my 30-year career in sales,” he said, “because of the pandemic, I’ve never spent this much time at home. What I really enjoy is being at a customer [‘s workplace], observing and perceiving needs and translating that into actionable steps.”

I asked, “What’s keeping you from traveling (observing public health restrictions, of course)? Is your boss against it?” He said, “No, I just hadn’t thought about it.” I asked, “What’s your ideal? How many customers would you like to visit this month?” He said, “ideally two.” “Can that be your goal?” I asked, “that you’d like to develop a broader perspective and do more of what you love at work?” He agreed.

“So to make that goal measurable and doable, you’ll know you’ve made progress when you reach out to two clients and make appointments to see them and clear your calendar for those trips this month,” I suggested.

I recommended that he keep record on a spreadsheet of the progress with the client, including the part about how he’s getting broader perspective in communicating with them. He thought that was a good idea.

To wrap up the meeting, I asked him, “What word would you use to describe how you’re feeling right now – now that we’ve done this work?” He said, “Better. No, actually the word is, ‘lighter.’ I feel like I’ve put down a weight.”

To experience greater productivity and engagement at work, we need to discover that softer gray area, get that greater perspective and grow compassion for ourselves. Compassion begins within us. Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate ourselves as well as others and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect. It is difficult to feel and show respect for others when we haven’t discovered our own humanity first.

Our first step is to become aware of how we may inadvertently be judging ourselves. This three-day challenge can empower you to notice, observe and recognize the impact of Polarization on yourself and others. Using our head, heart and hands, we can develop the self-awareness that allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, as well as increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for the organization.

Three-day Challenge

Over the next three days we are noticing, observing and experiencing the impact of Polarization.

  1. HEAD: Observe what words and actions correlate with the stage of Polarization.
    • Under what circumstances do you judge yourself?
    • Who in your family, community or office gets alienated?
    • What is said or done that alienates?
    • How did this observation make you look at people differently?
  2. HEART: Today as you observe yourself and others, notice your own feelings and the reactions of others when you or they use polarizing language.
    • What feelings did you observe in others and how did it make you feel?
    • What was particularly heartbreaking or moving about polarization?
  3. HANDS: Now that you have reflected on the polarization and its impact on you and others, what actions can you take to make sure people you encounter feel valued and heard?
    • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for yourself (the Acceptance and Adaptation stages of the IDI)?
    • What thoughts, words and actions can you use to show genuine respect for others (Acceptance and Adaptation)?
    • What polarizing processes or systems can be challenged at home, in your community or at your office?
    • How could you learn more about the impact of systems that inadvertently sideline or silence groups of people?  –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Image credit: @Angel Balashev,

Who do you know in your network that would find this blog helpful? Please share this blog with them.

How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark in Five Steps

How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark in Five Steps

“I struggle with people who make ignorant remarks,” Larry explained. Larry has his own internationally renowned HR consulting firm. “You know, my work activities bring me around to lots of different places, meeting lots of different people in North America. With all the talk in the media, I’ll get into a discussion about things like 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 your reality – your family story.’ 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. So I’ve backed off on a lot of discussions, now, because there just doesn’t seem to be solution.”

Amy: “That’s a tough spot to be in. Are you wondering how to respond?”

Larry: “Yes. How do I respond to an ignorant remark like ‘there’s no such thing as racism’?”

Amy: “It sounds like you want to speak up but you feel like there’s almost no point in arguing because it’s not going to change their mind. They’ll just want to defend their position, and no one wins. Whereas, if you remain silent, that suggests you agree with what the person just said, right? Ugh!”

Larry: “Exactly! So what do I do?”.

Amy: “Can I share an example of what you might do?”

Larry: “Absolutely.”

Amy: “I remember sitting across the table from a CEO at a coffee shop a few years ago. He knew about my work, so he said to me, ‘I just don’t understand why those people take a knee on the football field. They’re not being respectful.’ I said, ‘I get that. 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.” The CEO nodded and said, “You get it.”

So I asked him, ‘May I offer another perspective?’ He said, “Sure.” I wondered aloud with him, ‘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 a good point.”

Connecting, not curing

I could tell Larry was really listening. I continued, suggesting that both these stories – honoring the Allies of World War II and Colin Kaepernick’s quite protest – can have the power to change thinking, but the approaches were different. 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.

Curing communicates…

  • Something’s wrong with you but I’m okay
  • You’re ignorant; I’m enlightened
  • You’re wrong; I’m right.

Connecting communicates that we (both parties) can…

  • Work toward mutuality with shared understanding
  • Feel solidarity and compassion for one another
  • Ensure we both feel valued, heard and engaged.

Connecting 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. society, and in many of the organizations in it, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic. And if we’re not culturally intelligent, that competitiveness can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. Because of this, 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 be the winner.

But in 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 is felt by all; oneself and our colleague, client, friend or family member.

Five steps for responding

To make sure you both win, there are five steps I’d recommend you take when you find you’re in a situation like Larry’s:

  1. Notice their feelings of frustration or fear
  2. Hear the person out
  3. Recognize it’s not a personal attack on you but that they’re talking about their own experience
  4. Paraphrase what they said, affirming their experience, even if it’s  different from yours
  5. Ask permission to offer a different perspective.

I said to Larry, “I noticed when you were asking the question that you were pretty frustrated so I heard you out. Did you 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 but I want to stay in relationship with them. It seems to work well. Does that help you?”

Larry said, “It does. I see now that there’s another way.”

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

  1. Photo by Taylor Smith on Unsplash

*In a Series of interactive workshops with Dr. Narishkin, “Awkward to Awesome: Boost Productivity & Diversity with Cultural Intelligence,” you can acquire the skills and attitude needed to help you and your organization ensure that no one is side-lined or silenced and everyone can contribute and feel valued. Why wouldn’t you want your whole team working at their top level of productivity in a low to no drama environment? This is the outcome for culturally intelligent organizations.

Unions or Unity: A CEO’s Dilemma

Unions or Unity: A CEO’s Dilemma

CEO: “The workers withdrew the petition!”

AMY: “What does that mean for the company?”

CEO: “There’s not going to be an election to decide whether or not to unionize.”

AMY: “So that’s good news?”

CEO: “Yeah, it is. What a relief!”

What happened

Three weeks earlier, a small group of factory workers had met with the union representatives at a local bar. Team members were encouraged to sign the union’s card. When the union had enough signed cards, they told the National Labor Relations Board they had enough people to form a union. A week later, when the company that owned the factory received notification, they were required to post notification that there was a petition to form a union. The petition didn’t arrive until Monday, but the CEO got word on the Friday afternoon before. He was surprised and hurt.

CEO: “I’m so mad,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard to create a culture of open communication. I walk the factory floor and make myself available throughout the day every day. Why would they do this to me, especially after they just got a bonus?”

AMY: “Do you just want me to listen or to problem-solve with you?”

CEO: “Problem-solve.”

AMY: “Do you recall in our corporate IDI Debrief Session* we reviewed the five stages of cultural intelligence?” I said, referring to the workshop I’d done with company executives a few weeks before. “The data showed your leadership team is in the middle stage: Minimization. Remember that in that stage, people and groups value commonalities and de-emphasize differences, a strong indicator that there’s a lack of deeper understanding of differing perspectives. As a result, minority perspectives are typically not fully heard, making them feel sidelined or silenced. This can really impact overall engagement, collaboration and productivity.”(1)

I reminded him of what I said in the workshop: “When people and groups don’t feel fully heard, frustration and anger tend to grow. Under that stress, people inadvertently fall back to the earlier cultural intelligence stage – Polarization – where those same people become overly critical of their situation and work from an ‘us versus them’ mindset.”

CEO: “Right, so I’m starting to see how this relates to unionization.”

AMY: “Yes. The group attempting to unionize wasn’t feeling valued and heard. Because they felt alienated, they started working from an ‘us versus them’ mindset, because they felt management wasn’t listening. They sought out someone who would: the union.”

“But right now, that’s how they feel. How do you feel? Are you feeling alienated, like it’s ‘you versus them’?”

CEO: “Definitely.”

AMY: “What if, instead of falling back into that ‘me versus them’ mindset yourself, you worked from a place of cultural intelligence? If you were to approach the situation with genuine curiosity, what would you do? Don’t try to answer now – just think on it.”

The subject was dropped for the time being as the CEO contemplated those questions.

All-hands meeting

The next morning was an all-hands meeting with everyone in the factory. The lawyer had told the CEO what he wasn’t allowed to say, which didn’t leave him with much could say. That was frustrating. But he worked to stay open and curious and thought about what actually could be said – and even more importantly how it could be said.

While he could say very little in the meeting, he realized he could state the subject, ask key the employees to consider key questions, repeat important words for emphasis and allow for pregnant silences.

The other employees got the message and started encouraging the organizers to think about the potential impacts of their actions and to look for other options for getting their voices heard with management. In the meantime, the CEO also hedged his bets and met with outside consultants and lawyers. Together, they came up with contingency plans for outsourcing the work if need be, which further empowered the CEO’s position by giving him some leverage.

The CEO continued his normal approach to leadership – regularly walking the factory floor and praising his people, shaking hands and listening a lot.

Two days later, the CEO shared his progress with me. He felt open and genuine again but still didn’t know how to end this attempt to unionize.

AMY: “I know you can’t directly ask, but how else: Who on that team doesn’t feel valued and heard and why not?”

CEO: “That’s a good question. I need to find out. How do I do that?”

What a leader can do

I told the CEO that there are two organizational factors in play. First, a culturally intelligent leader needs to be aware that, after years of being belittled under a system of Minimization, minorities may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, social isolation or job loss even when a manager asks them to speak up.

Second, that in hierarchical contexts like his workplace, people of majority culture who are in Minimization often unconsciously assume an attitude of being the people “in the know.” Because they tend to be the knower, rather than the learner, they don’t listen well. However, if they adopt an attitude of learner, they can actively listen and can get to the bottom of things. I suggested to the CEO that, when he feels like he’s not making any progress, he STOP. That’s an acronym for…

  1. Slow down
  2. Take 3 deep breaths
  3. Observe your own reaction and their hurt
  4. Proceed with genuine curiosity and wonder

When he slowed down and thought more about it, the CEO realized he had assumed people trusted him. He didn’t really know his employees’ perspectives, nor did he know why they were frustrated and angry.

It also became clear to him that while – according to the union rules – he wasn’t allowed to talk, he could deeply listen and learn.

What happened

The following week, the CEO spent the better part of his days on the factory floor listening to this team of people and watching them work. They’d ask him questions and he’d have to remind them, “I can’t say anything to you while we’re under this petition, but I can listen to you. I can’t agree, disagree or affirm anything, but I’m here. I’m listening.”

As the workers chatted while they worked, the CEO took mental note. He worked alongside them, helping where he could. Eventually they started talking more naturally. He heard them complain about their immediate boss and the aggressive behavior they’d experienced. That turned out to be the root cause of their distress. The CEO realized that he needed to remove that manager and temporarily take over managing this team; that’s what he did.

Two weeks later, the team met again at the local bar. They no longer had enough team members to sign union cards.

The following Monday, the petition to unionize was withdrawn; there have been no further attempts to unionize. The CEO continues to listen deeply at all levels of his organization.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and use words and actions to show genuine respect for them. When we adapt our words and actions to show genuine respect for others, we are better able to hear and learn how they are impacted by the system in place – and they’re more likely to share their perspective with us.

Our organizational wellbeing develops one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of why others, including employees, may be feeling side-lined or silenced. Those conversations are the foundation on which leaders can build connection, overcome individual and collective feelings of isolation and create systems that benefit everybody.

When leaders are alert and do not allow their organization to default to Minimization, they decrease drama and develop capacity in themselves and their organization for ever greater appreciation of others, increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for everyone.     -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

*The IDI or Intercultural Development Inventory® is a 50-item online questionnaire that measures both individual and organization’s stage of development and ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations. As a Certified Administrator, Dr. Amy Narishkin provides the IDI® results and does a Debrief, which becomes an ongoing resource to guide individual and corporate development.


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo credit: Justin Wilkens,