Five Ways Whites Can Effectively Respond in Cross-cultural Conversation

Five Ways Whites Can Effectively Respond in Cross-cultural Conversation

When someone is in crisis or the whole world is exploding in pandemics and protests what do you do? Studies show most of us respond by minimizing our differences trying to rationalize the crisis down to nothing, invalidating (often infuriating) the person(s) in crisis. Or we minimize by “me tooing” with our own comparable story or we just plain-old ignore what is happening right in front of us. And some of us decide to polarize by going into denial or opposition. Why? Because we don’t know how to respond.

These five steps help you respond to almost any crisis as a compassionate human being:

  1. Focus the discussion on the other person: “Would you mind telling me your story and what you’ve come to understand?” Steer away from centering a conversation on yourself (your thoughts, feelings or experience). This conversation is not about you, its about uncovering the root of the crisis and the other person(s) experience, not yours.
  2. Be a listener and learner in a conversation: “Would you mind telling me more about your experience? What has happened to you?” Steer away from being the speaker and knower of truth. This is not the movies – a white person is not going to solve all the problems with a witty speech.
  3. Affirm the other person’s experience, even if their experience is different from yours: “It sounds like that was tough for you.” Steer away from sharing what you think is a comparable experience that you have had. Let yourself feel what you are hearing.
  4. Show compassion as you listen. Follow these 3 Steps.
  5. Check the impact of your words: “What was the impact of my words on you? Did you feel like I heard you well?” Steer away from being concerned about your intent when you speak, your impact is more important.

When I first started in this work of understanding racism, culture and cultural intelligence as a white woman, I didn’t know how to respond to crisis either. Without knowing how to get it right, I originally thought it would be better to minimize our differences and say nothing at all. But not recognizing a person’s pain, makes the problem worse. It strains a relationship. It hurts the other person. Initially, I just didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand the context of why people protest and how to uncover the cause of people’s pain.

If we don’t know, we need to learn the history and context of people’s pain. There are Anti-racism Resources to help parents, teachers and leaders understand the history of exploitation and context of race in America. For my fellow whites, learning history from this perspective for the first time can be initially heartbreaking and undesirable. But stick with it. Years ago, my mentor suggested that it doesn’t help to avoid it but instead ingest the information at a rate that’s manageable and keeps us in the work; it’s worth it.

I realized I was going to need to know history to engage in culturally intelligent conversations. I also recognized I needed to get to know people who are different from me. How does a white gal from the burbs relate to a black man in the city center? How do you talk with someone different from you at work? How do you be an ally with a person at your place of worship or recreation? The answer is with cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and change our behavior to show genuine respect. When we feel the freedom to talk and learn with people who hold different perspectives and have distinct backgrounds, we become open to new possibilities for relationship, productivity and positive change.

Why compassion

What I’ve learned over time is that central to cross-cultural conversations is the experience of being understood by another. Each of us has a deep need for human connection. Even when my experience is different, I can express compassion. When I do share compassion, I am working to hold space for the other person to authentically show up, be accountable, work through problems and be successful. I work to keep the focus on them so they feel valued and heard.

What we gain by listening

In capitalist societies, competitiveness is a cultural characteristic that, if we’re not culturally aware, can get in the way of productive and genuine relationships. 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 win. But in that zero sum construct when one person wins, the other loses. It’s either our loss or theirs; in each case both parties lose the opportunity to build a relationship. People lose connection. Organizations lose productivity and opportunities to innovate.

How we win

We know we’ve really “won” when we feel compassion for our colleagues and clients. The survival and well-being of our organizations depend on our collective well-being, not our individual might.

Our collective well-being develops with one culturally intelligent conversation at a time. It is within individual conversations that we are able to pick up on patterns of how people and employees may be/feel exploited, side-lined or silenced. This is where the power of compassion comes into action.

We can notice, feel and respond to systems within our organizations and community that are marginalizing, silencing or excluding people. These systems may include a lack of quality childcare or public transportation; a lack of compassion toward different religious practices or value systems. No matter what becomes apparent in our conversations, we get to notice, feel and respond with compassion and in solidarity.

While 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, it is the exclusion of these words in our work organizations and greater society that aid in marginalizing entire groups of people, minimizing important experiences we could all learn from and alienating us from innovation that moves us forward in life and business.   –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

There’s a Better Question

There’s a Better Question

Why is Covid-19 hitting some communities harder than others? Who exactly has been hit the hardest? These are the questions my daughter Abby Narishkin, a reporter for Business Insider, was looking into for her research for, “The Real Reasons Coronavirus Hits Some Communities Harder Than Others.” Abby lives and works in New York City, but, because New York became a U.S. epicenter in March, she came to shelter with us here in St. Louis.

About the time Abby arrived, headlines were reporting a disproportionate number of people of color dying of Covid-19. Abby wondered why the disparity if we are “all in this together.”

Because Abby and I were together, I had the privilege of watching the depth of research and teamwork that go into producing a report like that. As she uncovered the facts about the number of people of color dying, we felt deep despair. It isn’t fair. With such significant disparities between the experience of whites and people of color, the irony that Abby was safely sheltering with us in suburban St. Louis versus New York City was not lost on us.

For us, difficult questions began to arise. For example, “Are whites to blame for these disparities in our country?” Or, “Are people of color to blame?”

As I thought more about it, I realized questions like these make us defensive, triggering a desire to protect ourselves. They make us turn our attention inward. As a result, we end up talking in ways that are alienating and polarizing to people. And nothing gets accomplished. We do this when questions get tough in our communities, schools, places of worship and work. That inward-only focus can often turn to a complacency, or “analysis paralysis,” that allows those hungry for self-serving control or power the perfect opportunity to exploit the most unintelligent and reflexive parts of our culture and fears.

This pull to look inward isn’t our fault, per se. It’s a symptom of being a part of a larger American culture that focuses on individualism, personal responsibility and protecting our individual rights.

While protecting individual rights is a necessary part of the American collective consciousness, individualism can inadvertently fixate our attention on finger-pointing and blaming. This can keep us from doing the more mature and dignified work of showing up for each other. Determining the root cause(s) can be important to moving, in a time of crisis, from addressing immediate needs band-aid-style, to identifying sustainable, long term solutions. Even in that transition, blame and shame are not required to find and reach solutions. Although often not discussed, personal responsibility includes showing up for each other and for the benefit of the larger community, which in turn benefits the individual.

How to look forward

In light of the data Abby shared in her report, I realized I can use my cultural intelligence to appreciate a perspective different from my own and change my behavior to show genuine respect.

So instead of looking inward, a better course of action is to look outward. To get there, we can:

  1. Accept the disparities as our current reality in America
  2. Express genuine compassion for those who are all too-often sidelined or silenced, and
  3. Ask a question that redirects our attention outward, toward our shared responsibility and common good.

There’s a better question here: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to ensure everyone feels valued and engaged?”

This question frees us to consider actions that benefit us and the people around us. Instead of feeling helpless, we discover we don’t have to waste energy and time on self-protection but instead consider how we can make a difference and participate in systemic change.

How cultural intelligence opportunities show up in organizations

We’re not the only ones to fall into the trap of self-protection; organizations do too. Corporate diversity programs are often created for the purpose of self-protection. Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor and author of Diversity, Inc, writes that “formal diversity structures” don’t necessarily decrease discrimination. She cites Lauren Edelman, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkley as saying that they’re often “symbolic gestures to public opinion, the views of constituents, social norms or law.” Too often they become “a shield against successful bias lawsuits.”(1)

Not only to avoid litigation, corporate diversity programs also tend to focus on eliminating negative experiences and nasty behavior for minorities because those are easier to track than positive behavior.

But trying to avoid blame and shame as an organization doesn’t free us to do the more impactful work of building an intelligent culture together that ensures everyone in the organization feels valued and engaged.

Thus, the question is: “Within our sphere of influence, what can we do to create an organization where everyone, with their unique perspectives and backgrounds, feels valued and engaged?”

Within the context of your organization, it may help to know that, across the board, employees of color not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers. This means minority employees not only have more reasons to look into leaving but also fewer reasons to stay than their white colleagues, explain Peter Norlander of Loyola University and Serena Does and Margaret Shih of UCLA.(2)

Their research suggests the gap in positive experiences could account for as much as 10-15% of the difference in attrition rates between whites and employees of color.(2)

What a leader can do:

  1. Be aware of the impact of hidden assumptions. Hidden assumptions are an inherent ‘blind spot’ in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion.(3) For example, white people in the developmental stage of Minimization often assume that people of color have the same opportunities they do. If left unchecked, such assumptions can hinder our ability to talk, behave and work collaboratively and kindly with colleagues and clients who are different from us.
  2. Recognize that retention is based on positive experiences, not avoiding negative ones. Particularly for employees of color, managers can encourage direct reports to take part in decision-making and give input on how to do their job. Managers can encourage coworkers to share effective practices and help each other get the job done. And managers can appropriately recognize a job well done.(2)
  3. Utilize career mapping to communicate value. Career mapping is one strategy for engaging employees in decision-making. In 1-to-1 meetings, managers can connect with their direct reports to discuss their professional goals and potential career advancement opportunities, resources and education available to them within the business. “Rather than assuming that every employee wants to work toward a management-based trajectory, open up the discussion through quarterly or bi-annual surveys asking the employee to identify their pain points with their current role, thoughts on leadership and their ideal role within the organization they want to work toward,” writes Tim Johnson, CEO of Mondo, a leading digital marketing and IT staffing firm. This strategy encourages employees to share their passions and speak up about what it will take to retain them. It also establishes investment in them and their long-term future with the business.(4)

Maybe in 2019 a grocery store checker was regarded as having low education and therefore deserving of low pay or a less desirable job. Now we know that, from the factory worker to the truck driver to the stocker to the checker and everyone in between, each and every one is critical for the survival of our communities and organizations. If we are unwilling to fully value our neighbors and team members and allow them to bring their full contribution to our communities and organizations, why spend the organization’s time and resources to employ them? How much is the loss of contribution and productivity from an undervalued person or community? What’s the profit loss on ¼, ½ or ¾ of an employee’s full potential for the sake of maintaining biases that in the end serve no one?


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

In a global crisis, now is not the time to circle our wagons in self-protection. Now is not the time to turn our attention inward with questions about who’s to blame and who should be ashamed.

It’s the time to turn the work inward to be culturally intelligent and look outward to the systems, behaviors and habits that prevent diversity from being a powerhouse of contribution for good that it can be.

In many predominantly black and brown neighborhoods there are food deserts, restrictive housing practices and less access to equitable education, medical care and jobs, conditions that are fueling Covid-19’s impact in these communities. Organizations have their own versions of this inequity. They have praise deserts, stagnant hierarchical structures and roadblocks to valued productivity and career mobility based on personal and cultural, conscious and unconscious bias that are fueling attrition and potential profit loss.

Now is the time to grow cultural intelligence in our communities and organizations by turning our attention outward. Now is the time to acknowledge that Covid-19 in our society and quota outlines within our organization are not the great equalizers. As the Business Insider report shows, these disparities between whites and people of color existed long before the pandemic and are deeply embedded in our culture. It is paramount that we see how blame and shame delay adoption of the cultural intelligence that can actually increase equity and prosperity.

Now is the time to ensure the dignity of every individual, so that none are lost and the full measure of people’s contributions are gained. Now is the time to ask: Within my sphere of influence as parent, teacher and/or leader, what can I do or, even better, what can we do to ensure each person within our organizations and communities feels valued, heard and engaged?      -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc., New York: Bold Type Books.
  2. Norlander, P., Does, S. & Shih, M. (working paper) Deprivation at work: Positive workplace experiences and the racial gap in quit intentions.
  3. Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
  4. Johnson, T. (Jun 29, 2018) “The real problem with tech professionals: High turnover. Forbes.
What’s In a Name

What’s In a Name

The other day, my friend James stopped in at the gas station he frequents. He overheard another customer say, “I can’t stand Chinese people. I hate this foreign virus.”

“What?!” James said.

The customer responded, “Why do you think we’re in this mess? We have this Coronavirus because of them.”

James slowed down the conversation and said, “I have two siblings who were adopted from China, and I don’t have a single problem. We’re safe.”

The customer quickly dialed back and said, “No, no, no. I have a problem with the Chinese government, not the people.” Then the customer turned and left.

It hurts when he hears that term. James certainly knows Chinese people are not the cause of Covid-19.

During a time of fear and uncertainty such as this, it’s important to understand how easy it is to get caught up in assumptions, why that happens and what we can do about it.

The way we talk about disease matters, whether it’s a human disease or the types of dis-ease that make organizations sick, and impacts people’s lives and interactions. Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous.

Why stereotypes are dangerous

Describing Covid-19 as a “foreign virus” is problematic. Ho-Fung Hung, Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University explained that the virus itself doesn’t know ethnic boundaries, so if you’re stuck with this perception that you only need to keep a distance from certain groups of people, you miss the more important steps that need to be taken: maintain physical distance from people outside your household. People can inadvertently lower their guard; they might think they won’t come across someone from Asia, so they’re fine.(1) And when people are worried about being discriminated against, they might feel discouraged from getting the medical care they need. If immigrants are afraid to get tested, that puts the community at large in danger too.

Not only is there the obvious physical danger to the community at large, there is also potential harm to our ability to connect with friends, clients and coworkers. When a person calls this disease the “Chinese flu” or a “foreign virus,” they put a face to the blame, and that can negatively influence a person’s perception and behavior, thus inadvertently alienating a whole group of people. Not only is that not healthy in, it’s destructive to personal and professional relationships.

This isn’t new

At, reporter Catherine Shoichet points out that from the Black Plague to SARS, racism and xenophobia were also in the picture. Here’s what scholars told her about some of these events:

  • “In 14th century Italy, Jewish populations were accused of deliberately poisoning the wells and causing the Black Death. We know examples of this from many places in Europe,” said Nükhet Varlik, associate professor of history at Rutgers University. As rumors spread, Jewish people were killed, buried alive and burned at the stake, he said.(1)
  • “The 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City was very largely blamed on Irish Catholic immigrants,” said Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University.(1)
  • “In 1876, during an outbreak of smallpox in San Francisco, a population of 30,000 Chinese living there became medical scapegoats. Chinatown was blamed as a ‘laboratory of infection,’ and quarantined amidst renewed calls to halt immigration. Things got to the point where there were forced vaccinations of people in the Chinatown community with a vaccine that had not been fully tested,” said Doug Chan, president of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Marie Myung-Ok Lee, writer-in-residence at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882.(1)

Why humans fall into this trap

Humans are a social species that has evolved to live in big groups but, until recently in human history, had no understanding of specific causes of disease or the way they’re transmitted. So, to minimize the spread of disease, humans ignorantly defaulted to a kind of instinctive social distancing. Its expression was crude, our ancestors operating on a ‘better safe than sorry’ logic.(2) But that binary thinking about who’s safe and who’s not safe sometimes gets mapped against preexisting social prejudices. So, minority groups often become scapegoats during public health emergencies (3)

We might think that we’re unbiased, impartial and fair and so wouldn’t fall into this trap. But we all succumb to this bias, having evolved to be this way. Due to some deeply evolved responses to disease and fears of contagion, we have a “blindspot” we’re often unaware of, which is influencing our behavior toward people.

In a previous blog, “What’s in Your Blindspot?” I explained that an assumption is an idea that we accept as true about a person or group of people without proof. A hidden assumption (or unconscious bias) is an inherent “blind spot” in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion – like thinking Asian people cause Covid-19.

In this pandemic, a particular kind of bias is prevalent: in-group bias. It means the unfair favoring of someone from one’s own group (and denigration of those outside it). From an evolutionary perspective, the bias is about gaining an advantage over other social groups, particularly with respect to protecting and promoting people similar to oneself.

In stressful times like this pandemic, even within their own in-group, people value conformity over eccentricity. The pattern is similar when there is a crisis in your business, and, for example, when sales for the quarter plummet. Understanding this, we tend to see value in being morally vigilant in a crisis. Studies have shown that when we fear outbreak, we tend to be more judgmental when perceiving a breach of loyalty, break from the norm or failure to respect authority.(2)

What a leader can do

Spending a great deal of time in isolation whether from Covid-19 or in the silo of your department at work, people can get caught up in their own small world and forget that other people have different perspectives and experiences. When we notice a bias in ourselves or others we can “STOP” – discover there’s much more to know about a person, situation or organization than we initially thought. We can:

  • S – Slow down;
  • T – Take 3 deep breaths;
  • O – Observe our reaction and the feelings of others, check to see that you’re safe; and if everything is cool…
  • P – Proceed with curiosity and wonder

A solution in solidarity

“What prompted you to speak up?” I asked James. He explained that he felt hurt when he heard the customer blame Chinese people. But he slowed down, acknowledged his own feelings and recognized that the other guy was probably afraid too. So he offered a different perspective and hoped it would reassure him.

James told me he wonders if he’s just being self-righteous. But as we discussed it more, he realized that what he really wants is to be part of a society where everyone feels like they belong, where even his Chinese brother and sister have voices that are honored as much as his own.

Cultural intelligence helps us to slow down, acknowledge our own fear and take steps to stay safe, as well as empathize and recognize no one person is to blame for whatever we’re experiencing. This kind of compassion heals and enhances the health of our daily interactions as well as our on-going relationships within our homes and workplaces.                   -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Shoichet, C. (March 17, 2020). “Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the coronavirus spreads.”
  2. Robson, D. (April 1, 2020) “The fear of coronavirus is changing our psychology.” BBC Future.
  3. Mar 31, 2020 “Coronavirus revives racist stereotypes against Chinese people and other minorities,” The Christian Science Monitor.
  4. Understanding unconscious bias: The Royal Society.
  5. Dwyer, C. (Sept 7, 2018) “12 common biases that affect how we make everyday decisions.” Psychology Today.
What’s the Point of Impact?

What’s the Point of Impact?

“Should I have taken down my Confederate flag?” Bob asked. It was the question Bob, a mid-level retail manager, asked when he called me over to his group during a workshop I was facilitating at his company.

Amy: “Where’s the flag?”

Bob: “Up on the wall in my garage,”

Amy: “So, what’s the problem?”

Bob: “It took up the better part of the back wall, and when the garage door was up, the neighbors could see it.”

Amy: “What prompted you to put it up?”

Bob: “It represents part of US history, my own history.”

Amy: “So it must be pretty important to you. Why do you think it needs to come down?”

Bob: “After the Cultural Intelligence Workshop last week, I got to thinking about what you’d said, about how ‘our impact is more important than our intent in cross-cultural relationships.’ Because my neighbor is black, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

Amy: “Thinking about the impact of your actions is a great first step in building a relationship with your neighbor.”

Bob: “But I don’t know if it helped.”

Amy: “Did you ask him?”

Bob said, “No. I’m not sure what to say.”

Amy: “What about saying what you just said to me? I took down the Confederate flag in my garage because I thought it might hurt your feelings. What was the impact of that flag on you?”

Bob: “I can say that?”

Cultural default

In cross-cultural conversations, sometimes we don’t know what to say. It can be awkward and even stifling in an existing relationship or in the early days of a new one. This is where we need the cultural intelligence to help us know what to say and how to say it.

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our words and actions to show respect and genuine interest in another. Whether it’s in your neighborhood making new friends or on a conference call with colleagues, cultural intelligence enables the connection that builds collaboration and innovation in every organization.

In developing my own cultural intelligence, I’ve realized it’s easier to connect with other people  authentically if I’m aware of my own default cultural habits. Some of those cultural habits are usually helpful, like when I use active listening or smile when I walk by another person. Other default habits are hurtful though, like how I might put distance between me and another person when I feel unsure of myself.

Often, we’re unaware of our default cultural habits and how they hinder our ability to connect and sustain relationships that are critical to effectively navigating our home and work life.

A way to be culturally self-aware

I’ve learned that one default cultural habit the people of a majority culture (in a country or organization) can unconsciously express is that of thinking they’re “in the know.” Let me explain why. You might recall in a previous blog, “There’s Nothing Common About Vocabulary,” I explained that worldwide, within every country and community, culture comes in two forms: majority and minority culture.

Majority culture is the most powerful, widespread, or influential group within a multicultural community of any type, whether it’s a home, school, office, non-profit, place of worship or country.

Minority culture is a distinct group that coexists with but is perceived and treated as subordinate to the majority culture. It’s often smaller in number (but not always) and is distinct from majority culture because of gender, generation, religion, race, disability or education, just to name a few.

Because the majority culture group is the most powerful and influential, its members typically set the standard for what is “normal” in a community. As a result, majority culture people default to being the “knowers” in their culture, rather than the “learners.” As knowers, they may not feel comfortable when they don’t know or don’t have an answer. And because they may be unaccustomed to that discomfort, it can feel awkward expressing that they don’t know, as it was for Bob.

But the act of asking for help or clarity on the impact of our words or actions can actually have an endearing effect for majority culture people. In fact, people of minority cultures typically appreciate it when I take the time to ask about the impact of my words on them. It suggests I’m investing in understanding them and their experience on a deeper level, thus signaling I’m genuinely interested them as a person.

What a leader can do

In my previous blog, “Hear Me Now?”, I shared a story about how a leader showed compassion. The word compassion comes into the English language by way of the Latin root “passio,” which means to suffer and is paired with the Latin prefix “com” meaning together. So the original meaning of compassion was “suffer together.” While “suffering” may be a strong word, these three steps for expressing compassion are culturally intelligent and allow anyone to move from the default attitude of being the “knower” to investing in learning about the other person’s perspective in a respectful and authentic manner. Compassion involves three elements:

  1. Noticing
  2. Feeling
  3. Responding

Let’s take a closer look at those elements:

Step one: Noticing

We can slow down, check to see that we’re safe and notice the feelings of the other person. Bob, for example, had the gut feeling that by displaying his Confederate flag, he was not creating a safe environment for his neighbor.

Step two: Feeling

Feel your feelings or reaction. Know them to be legitimate. And acknowledge the feelings of the other person as legitimate as well. Because we all have a desire to be understood, it can be hard to focus on another person’s feelings if we haven’t acknowledged our own emotions first. (In other words, if we accept our own humanity, we can extend it to others.) Bob needed to acknowledge two things: that the flag was there in his space because it had deep meaning for him and that it could cause a different set of deep feelings in his neighbors.

Step three: Responding

To find a response that honors both sets of feelings, you can ask, “What was the impact of my words (or action)?” then listen deeply. When the person describes how your words made them feel, respond by labeling the emotion. Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. Labels almost always begin with roughly the same words:

  • It seems like…
  • It sounds like…
  • It looks like…

For example, we might say…

  • It seems like that hurt you.
  • It sounds like that made you mad.
  • It looks like that was confusing.

After the Cultural Intelligence Workshop Bob naturally began to notice (Step 1) the environment he was creating/holding. He also considered his feelings for why he had created that environment and what it could mean for his neighbors (Step 2). However, he was unaware there was a process for showing compassion or that it contained a Step 3.

What happened

Until he asked me if he’d done the right thing by taking down his flag, Bob didn’t know he could ask about the impact of his action. He also didn’t know it was okay not to know.

At the next workshop, I asked Bob, “How did it go with your neighbor?

Bob said: “I never asked him. I decided the flag wasn’t that important. Ever since I asked you, our families have been getting together every Sunday for barbecue dinners and really enjoying getting to know one another.”

Later in the morning Bob told me how grateful he was not only for his new friendship with the family across the street but also for the knowing, now, that he can check on how he’s coming across to people. He explained that it’s not only helpful with his neighbors and colleagues but also with his wife and kids.

As with every seemingly tricky interpersonal issue at home, work or online, knowing how to navigate with cultural intelligence is the key to success. Recognizing we are in relationship with someone who has seen and unseen differences is the first step to connection.

Rarely does rushing in as the “knower” show another person respect or genuine interest. Sure, compassion is a squishy word we don’t often bring to work. But if we do, consider the impact on productivity, collaboration and innovation. Imagine the sense of value and pride in work that can develop, which is good for people, profit margins and a world in great need of compassion.                                                                                                    -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

What’s in Your Blindspot?

Russ: “Can I tell you what happened?” I nodded so he pulled me aside and said, “I’m only telling you because I know the work you’re in.”

Amy: “What happened?”

Russ: “I was at a fast food restaurant in town. My wife and I went in for dinner and all the employees—they were all teenagers—totally ignored us. We waited for them to turn around and take our order but they just kept talking with each other. I finally asked for help. After one of them finished talking with her friends, she turned around and said in a derogatory tone, “How can I help you?’ After we gave her our order, she yelled it back to the kitchen, then, without a word, she turned her back on me.”

Amy: “That must have been awkward. Are you telling me this because they were black teenagers?”

Russ: “Yes. And when the gal came over with our food, she slapped it down in front of us and walked away again without saying a word. We didn’t react. We just ate quickly, cleaned up after ourselves and left. I just wanted you to know how we were treated. That’s the way those people are.”

Amy: “That’s tough. Must have made you mad.”

Russ: “Not really.”

Amy: “I guess it was upsetting enough for you to tell me about it.”

Russ: “Yeah, it was disturbing.”

Amy: “So, did you talk with the manager?”

Russ: “Why would I do that?”

Amy: “Because you got sub-par service. May I ask you a question?” Russ nodded. “If those kids had been white, would you have complained to the manager?”

Russ: “Sure, I would have complained.”

Amy: “So you’re telling me that you have a lower standard for black kids than white kids?”

Russ: “No!” He looked thoughtful and then asked, “It won’t do any good to complain, will it?”

Amy: “Well, you won’t really know for sure until you find out, right? You could call and ask for the manager.”

Russ: “I’ll think about it.”

Until I asked the question, to help him consider getting more information, Russ hadn’t realized he was acting out an assumption he held about African American people.

What’s an assumption?

An assumption is an idea that we accept as true about a person, group of people or situation without proof. And then there’s the specific kind that Russ was acting on, called a hidden assumption.

What’s a hidden assumption?

It’s an inherent ‘blind spot’ in our thinking that reduces accuracy and can ultimately result in an inaccurate, and often irrational, conclusion.

These types of conclusions are stored in in our brains, and because we encounter them so often in our own thinking and they’re reinforced by our background and cultural environments, we think these conclusions are “normal” and true.(1) They’re not, though. And, if left unchecked, they can hinder our ability to talk, behave and work collaboratively and kindly with our colleagues and clients.  

Not all broken thinking and blind spots are labeled, but some are so common they are given names. The good news is once named, they’re easier to notice, analyze and ultimately debunk.

One example of a hidden assumption (also known as unconscious bias) is confirmation bias.

What’s confirmation bias?

Russ’ actions were influenced by confirmation bias. A common thinking mistake, it’s the tendency to overvalue data and observation that fits with, or confirms, our existing beliefs. While it seems obvious enough to avoid, confirmation bias is a particularly sinister kind of bias, because it affects not just intellectual or political debates, but also our relationships, personal finances, and even our physical and mental health, according to Terry Heick, developer of the Cognitive Bias Codex.”

Here are seven other common thinking mistakes that can affect our relationships and workplaces:(3)

  1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect

A cognitive bias in which individuals with a low level of knowledge in a particular subject mistakenly assess their knowledge or ability as greater than it is. If you know only a little about something, you see it simplistically—biasing you to believe that the concept is easier to comprehend than it may actually be. On the other hand, experts are often aware of what they don’t know and, in a sense, the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be—not out of lacking knowledge, but due to caution.(3)

  1. The Negativity Bias

While we like to win, we hate to lose even more. So, when we make a decision, we generally think in terms of outcomes – either positive or negative. The bias comes into play when we irrationally weigh the potential for a negative outcome as more important than that of the positive outcome.(3)

  1. Self-serving Bias

Have you ever failed an exam because your teacher hates you, and then go in the following week and ace the next one because you studied extra hard despite that teacher? Then you’ve engaged the self-serving bias. We attribute successes and positive outcomes to our doing when things go right; but, when we face failure and negative outcomes, we tend to attribute these events to other people or contextual factors outside ourselves.(3)

  1. The Curse of Knowledge and Hindsight Bias

Once you (truly) understand a new piece of information, that piece of information is now available to you and often becomes seemingly obvious. It might be easy to forget that there was ever a time you didn’t know this information and so, you assume that others, like yourself, also know this information.(3)

  1. Optimism/Pessimism Bias

We have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes, particularly if we are in good humor, and to overestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes if we are feeling down or have a pessimistic attitude.(3)

  1. The Backfire Effect

This refers to the strengthening of a belief even after it has been challenged. Because we don’t like change and don’t want to be perceived as wrong, we may hold on tighter than ever before to an idea.

  1. In-group Bias

This bias refers to the unfair favoring of someone from one’s own group. We might think we’re unbiased, impartial and fair, but we all succumb to this bias. This bias can be considered an advantage—favoring and protecting those similar to us, particularly with respect to kinship and the promotion of one’s own group.(3)

Awareness does not guarantee a change in behavior

There is no quick fix for unconscious bias. Pamela Newkirk, New York University professor and author of Diversity, Inc writes:

“Quick fixes like unconscious bias training or climate surveys—no matter how expertly administered—cannot begin to address, let alone repair, the damage of centuries of demeaning images of racial, ethnic and religious minorities still perpetuated in film, on television, in advertising, news outlets, on museum walls, public iconography, and, indeed at every level of our educational system.”(4)

In some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, and contributed to stonewalling in organizations, all of which has ultimately been expressed through anger and resentment.(5)

Unconscious bias training alone can backfire, but there’s a solution: the development of cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence does change behavior. It’s the ability to recognize and appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect toward different cultural practices and perspectives.

So how can a leader develop an organization’s cultural intelligence and lessen the impact of unconscious bias in their organization?

What’s a leader to do?

If you’re reading this blog, you care about equality in your organization. As the leader, you have enormous insight and expertise about how the organization works for people like you. So you can:

  1. Recognize that equality or “fairness” is one of the most powerful shared beliefs in American culture—that belief that everyone should have a fair shot at life and be rewarded for what they’ve achieved.(6)
  2. Learn what it’s like for people who are different from you and make sure they have a positive experience in the organization.
  3. Hold monthly Listening Circles(7).
  4. Model the understanding that we all have different experiences,
  5. Encourage colleagues to listen and get more information rather than making and acting on assumptions about people’s experience.

What happened with Russ?

The next day I ran into Russ.

Russ: “Guess what?! I’ve got good news. I called the restaurant.”

Amy: “Cool! So, what happened?

Russ: “I asked to speak with the manager. When she came on the line, I told her what happened. She told me that the store was in the middle of a turnaround and that she needed more evidence to make her case that customer service needed to improve. She told me she would start working with the teenagers today. She said she was grateful I called and wanted me to come back to the restaurant and have dinner on them. You know, I wouldn’t have called if you hadn’t encouraged me.”

Amy: “I’m glad I could help. Though I made a suggestion; you were the one with the courage to call and find out more information. Well done!”

Russ: Thank you.

What we know now

Half of publicly traded companies in the United States have held some variation of unconscious bias training; however, unconscious bias training without cultural intelligence does not guarantee a change in behavior for the better. To be effective, training must matter to the people at the top. And then without shame or blame, organizations can train their employees to see how unconscious bias inadvertently hinders productive conversations and actions. To work, employees need to be offered the opportunity to be empowered to engage in compassionate, respectful and regular cross-cultural conversations, thus, increasing productivity, collaboration, and innovation for everyone in the organization.  –Amy S. Narishkin, PhD


  1. Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. (2013) Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. New York: Delacorte Press.
  2. Heick, T. (Oct 14, 2019) Teach Thought. “The cognitive bias codex: A visual of 180+ cognitive biases.”
  3. Dwyer, C. (Sept 7, 2018) Psychology Today. “12 common biases that affect how we make everyday decisions.”
  4. Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc., New York: Bold Type Books.
  5. Storey, S. (Jan 15, 2017) Huffington Post. “Unconscious bias—making millions from theory.”
  6. Zheng, L. (October 28, 2019) Harvard Business Review. “How to show white men that diversity and inclusion efforts need them.”
  7. Itzchakov, G & Kluger, A. (May 17, 2018) Organizational Dynamics. “The listening circle: A simple tool to enhance listening and reduce extremism among employees.”
  8. Narishkin, A (2020) Hear Me Now?

Hear Me Now?

After facilitating an introductory workshop on cultural intelligence, one of the CEO’s had a question for me. She told me that she holds listening circles at work so she can be sure her employees feel valued and engaged. And as an organization, they also regularly survey their employee’s attitudes about work.

At one point, when she was feeling so overwhelmed by all the input she was receiving in the listening circles, she stopped holding them. The following month’s survey scores dropped.

So, she started holding the listening circles again and watched as the following month’s scores went back up. However, the CEO was still overwhelmed by all the problems she was hearing because she couldn’t solve them all herself. When she realized it was too much, she delegated some of the problems to her staff.

Soon the staff became as burdened as she was – even resentful of her. Like her, they already had their own work to do! They didn’t need more.

When the CEO shared the story with me, she was at a loss as to what to do. She genuinely wanted to hear people’s concerns but couldn’t manage all the problems.

The problem

I told her I understood the struggle of wanting to show people compassion and yet feeling helpless that we can’t solve their problems. And it’s especially hard for those in leadership positions.

Because I wanted to respect that I was working in a secular environment, I asked the CEO if she’d mind if I shared a story about what I learned in my African American church. She didn’t mind, so I told her the story of what Elder Darline taught me.

The story

A visitor showed up at church one morning, a lady with misshapen head and dirty smelly clothes.

During fellowship time at our church, people greet each other with hugs. When I saw the lady, she initially repulsed me, and I didn’t want to embrace her at all! But because I wanted to honor the culture of my adopted church, I leaned in for a hug and held her tight. The lady responded by putting her weight on me and groaned with appreciation.

Then I ducked out quickly to visit the restroom before the sermon started. When I came out, the lady was sitting on the bench outside the bathroom sobbing. Elder Darline was with her. Darline asked me if I would sit with her while she went to get water for her. I had the same reaction as before; I didn’t want to be with this lady. But again, I wanted to honor our church culture, so I followed my elder’s instruction. I sat and held this lady. When Darline came back, we both sat and held her while she cried and related her story of abuse.

I was overwhelmed with thoughts of what we, as a little walk-in closet-sized church, could do for a lady so desperately in need. Meanwhile, Darline acknowledged her fears and patted her back. When she finished her story, Darline told her own story about experiencing abuse.

Darline said, “Do you know what you need to do?” The lady shook her head. “You need to forgive yourself and those people.”

I said, “Darline isn’t saying those people are off the hook for what they did; they’ll get their due. She’s saying to forgive for your sake.” The lady was quiet and thoughtful; she nodded in agreement.

Darline asked me to find a protein bar for the lady to eat. When I returned, the lady was quietly listening to Darline. I sat back down, put my arm around the lady and continued to follow Darline’s lead. In the meantime, another church member had found some used clothes in her trunk for the lady.

While both women were with the lady, I left to reassure my family about my whereabouts. When I turned around to go back, I saw the lady sitting in the last pew singing and praising along with the rest of the congregation. I was blown away by the transformation. She was freshly clothed and joyful. So I sat back down and continued celebrating with my family.

That afternoon, I called Darline to learn how she knew what to do. How was she not overwhelmed by the situation? I confessed that I had honestly thought there was nothing we could do for her; we just didn’t have the resources. Darline said she didn’t know what to do either but knew the lady would know what to do if we showed compassion and understanding. Darline reminded me that neither she nor I were going to save the lady; the answer was always within her.

The CEO was quiet and reflective. She told me that she had had the impression that she was supposed to solve all the problems.

I explained that in hierarchical contexts like her workplace, people of majority culture often unconsciously share a characteristic of being the people in-the-know. Because they tend to be the knower, rather than the learner, they don’t listen well and attempt to fix other people’s problems. However, if they adopt an attitude of learner, they can listen and trust that the answer, or at least a next step, is within the other person.

How to show compassion

In my Empowering Partners‘ workshop we define compassion and describe the steps for demonstrating it. The word comes into the English language by way of the Latin root “passio”, which means to suffer and is paired with the Latin prefix “com” meaning together. Compassion means “suffer together.” Compassion involves three elements:

  1. Noticing
  2. Feeling
  3. Responding

Step one: Noticing

We can slow down, check to see that we’re safe and notice the feelings of the other person.

Step two: Feeling

Feel your feelings. And acknowledge the feelings of the other person as legitimate. Because we all have a desire to be understood, it can be hard to focus on another person’s feelings if we haven’t acknowledged our own emotions first. (In other words, if we see our own humanity, we can extend it to another.)

Step three: Responding

When we notice an emotion and feel it, we can show compassion by responding with labeling the emotion we notice. Labels can be phrased as statements or questions. Labels almost always begin with roughly the same words:

  • It seems like…
  • It sounds like…
  • It looks like…

For example, we might say…

  • It seems like you’re inspired.
  • It sounds like you’re confused.
  • It looks like you’re angry.

Notice we say, “It sounds like…” and not “I’m hearing that…” The word “I” gets people’s guard up and says you’re more interested in yourself than in them. A more neutral statement of understanding such as “it seems like your angry” encourages the other person to keep talking.

If they disagree with the label you give, that’s okay. They’ll probably just clarify their feeling. And we can always step back and gently say, “Thank you for helping me understand.”

What happened

The CEO thanked me; she said she hadn’t realized she didn’t need to solve everyone’s problems. She felt more prepared for her listening circles especially now that she’d made the connection – it’s more compassionate to listen, learn and trust that the answer is within the other person.

In many cultures, including the United States, it takes just four seconds before silence becomes awkward. So, often our temptation is to rush in and fill that silence with talking. However, in culturally intelligent conversations, we come to appreciate another person’s perspective and are able to adapt our words to show respect across cultural differences when we notice, feel and respond with compassion.

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, 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. The key to greater collaboration, productivity and profit rests on everyone feeling and knowing they are valued and heard within the organization.                      -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD