Communication That’s Non-Violent

Communication That’s Non-Violent

“I’m not sure how to handle this situation,” Bianca said. Bianca is Director of Procurement in her organization. “I’m on my way out of the company; it’s not a good fit. My boss is promoting my colleague, who has been with the company for 15 years. I’ll be reporting to him.

Bianca said, “Even though I’ve stood up two projects in the last year I’ve been here, she’s has given him the credit. I’ve pointed out this pattern to her several times, but it’s not getting me anywhere. It’s creating antagonism between my boss and me.”

“In some ways, I can understand her position; she’s being loyal to a longtime employee. I just hadn’t realized until I was already a month into the job that, in this corporate culture, loyalty trumps accomplishment.

I said, “That’s heartbreaking to realize that after the fact. [Bianca nodded.] And now you know you want to find a corporate culture where management values abilities and accomplishment as much as it practices loyalty.

Demonstrating acceptance

What’s extraordinary about Bianca is that, in acknowledging her boss’s loyalty, she was demonstrating acceptance. Acceptance, one of the five stages of cultural intelligence, is what enables a person to accept [or appreciate] others’ perspective as well as their own and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect.

The five stages or mindsets of cultural intelligence include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) is an online tool that assesses an individual or group’s ability to accept and adapt while they’re talking with people who are different. Because 66.8% of the population around the world are found to be in the mindset of Minimization, Bianca is unique. She is part of the 14% of the population worldwide who have attained a mindset of Acceptance.(1)

What acceptance is and isn’t

People in the mindset of acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences and similarities.(1) They recognize the inherent dignity of themselves and others and are accepting of their own and others’ mistakes, imperfections, gifts and circumstances as they are. It’s not that they are any less judgmental than the rest of us, but what they do is withhold their judgment to lower their initial resistance to a person or situation just enough to stay open to what’s new or different.

Resistance is the opposite of acceptance. Resistance is a pulling away from reality based on incomplete information. When we feel resistance in our gut, our perspective narrows to binary thinking. Then we inadvertently dismiss the other person, blame them for the discomfort we’re feeling and/or lash out at them in anger.

To get beyond the resistance we feel, a culturally intelligent person knows they have an opportunity to slow down and get contemplative for a moment. In contemplation, we can take a breath and reconnect our head with our heart. With head and heart connected in a quiet moment, we can come to see or learn more of the reality of the situation or person.

While Bianca did not appreciate how she was being treated, Bianca was able to acknowledge where her boss was coming from within their company’s cultural context. As hard as it is to surrender to the circumstances and accept the reality of the situation, Bianca was doing it. She was able to stay open to learn more; that’s where her power was.

Non-violent communication

Bianca said, “I’m wondering how to handle this situation. How do I talk to my boss in the interim?”

I said, “Are you asking because it’ll take 4-5 months to find a new job at your level? [Bianca agreed.] What situation do you need to handle with her?”

“While I’m looking for my next position, how do I handle her words and actions so I don’t feel so invisible, like I don’t matter? Should I remain silent and go-along-to-get-along or call her out?”

I said, “It sounds like you’re thinking it’s an either/or – you win or she wins. Did I get that right? [Bianca nodded.] You don’t want to lose any more than you already have, and you also don’t see a need to alienate her, because she has only ever known this corporate culture in her career.

Bianca said, “That’s right.”

I said, “There’s actually a third option. You can use what’s called Non-Violent Communication (NVC). NVC is a method of communication designed to increase empathy and improve the quality of conversations and relationships. With it, you share your…

  1. Observations
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request

“For example, you might say something like, “When I hear you giving Mark the credit for a project I stood up, I feel invisible because I value hard work. I’d appreciate if you’d recognize my contributions. That way I’ll be even more motivated to do my best work.”

Bianca said, “Oh, I get why that works. No one can argue with your feelings and needs. That’s powerful.”

I said, “It is powerful. It’s also empowering because you’ve called out the unhelpful behavior rather than the person. They may still act defensive, but that’s on them not on you, because you haven’t personally accused her of anything. You shared your observations with a respectful tone.”

I asked, “Can I add one more point? [Bianca agreed.] When you use NVC, don’t put your expectations on her to respond in a certain way. How she responds is “between her and her God.” The point is, by using NVC, you’re not minimizing her or yourself. You’ve simply let her know your observation, feelings and need and then you made a request. The ball is in her court; you’ve said your piece. You also have not abandoned you, your values or your need to speak up. Sticking with you in the pain is the work you get to do to practice acceptance of you.

Bianca said, “I like that. That’s a great way to care for me in this interim period.”


 No doubt, using non-violent communication takes time, effort and intentionality. Bianca did have to slow down and observe her reaction to what was being said and done. Then she had to think through her feelings, needs and request before she spoke again with her boss. But when you can muster the courage to step outside the binary win-lose scenario, you can discover more compassion for yourself. Seeing you, identifying your boundaries and then finding a quiet time to speak them aloud with the other person takes practice. Self-awareness and practice bring more confidence; that’s what ultimately gives you the bandwidth (and power) to care for other people around you. That’s how you create a win-win for you and everybody.  -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

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


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash
She Found Her Voice

She Found Her Voice

“She needs to find her voice,” the CEO said. “Petra hardly says a word in meetings, even when it pertains to Human Resources.” Petra is the Vice President of HR and leads a team of 52 personnel. She is one of three women on a 21-person executive leadership team.

In our initial individual executive coaching session, Petra told me she is most effective in one-to-one conversations. But she’s introverted, and that introversion along with her boss’ criticism, didn’t make her feel confident about speaking up in their executive team meetings.

Petra is correct; it takes courage and confidence to speak in front of groups.

The context

In U.S. culture, “the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable ‘putting himself out there,’”(1)

On top of that, men’s dominance is apparent in popular media. Books, movies, games and music feature men and boys two to three times more often as protagonists. And men, overwhelmingly white, hold roughly 70-73% of the roles in top U.S. films, on-screen and off. That gender breakdown in films is equally skewed in other countries.(2)

The fact that men garner twice as much speaking and screen time applies equally in our day-to-day lives. Studies indicate parents and teachers interrupt their girls twice as much as their boys.(2)

This reality takes a toll on women. The most fundamental bias we face, the one underlying all the others, is the message that women are not inherently worth listening to as much as men. This message takes its toll on women as gaslighting and self-denial tend to do; we pay with an internal dialogue of self-criticism: You’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional.(2) This message, along with the push to be bold and comfortable in the spotlight, can crush women’s confidence.

This message takes its toll on organizations too. Without acknowledging the unique perspective of women and introverts and without seeing them as an asset, companies lose out on the value their diverse voices promise.

And because we don’t want to go against cultural norms and upset a status quo that favors extroverted male voices, leaders inadvertently silence and sideline dissenting opinions and different perspectives, including introverts’ and women’s. As a result, we’re often blind to the cultural systems in our organizations that keep women feeling left out or pushed out. This is opposite of cultural intelligence.(3)

Cultural intelligence is the ability to appreciate another’s perspective and adapt our behavior to show genuine respect across cultural differences, including gender and personality types like introversion.

Back to Petra’s story

Because introverts prefer think time, I texted Petra the morning before our afternoon meeting. “In preparation for our executive coaching session, please think of three takeaways and their examples from the last 10 months of working together.” I wanted to hear from her how we’d made a difference in her life and leadership.

At the start of the meeting, I asked her, “What are your takeaways from our coaching conversations?”

Petra said, “My first takeaway is now I know it’s natural to judge; I don’t need to be so tough on myself. My brain judges others to protect me. That’s how I know to get out of situations that aren’t safe. But if I’m not careful, my judgment can block me from fully hearing a person. My judgment isn’t wrong but it is limited based on my background and experience, that creates my bias. What I need to do is slow down, notice my assumption and then recognize there’s almost always more to the story.”

I asked her for an example. Petra explained, “There are three leaders in transition and vying for one job now. I may not totally understand why they’re reacting the way they are and it makes me feel judgmental. But when I slow down, I realize I can’t really criticize their behavior because I’ve never been in their situation. I can only imagine how hard it must be for them.”

I asked, “How does this perspective help?”

Petra said, “When I was talking with the leaders, after delivering the bad news that their positions were being eliminated, I said, “I recognized how hard this must be.” I told them I’m here if they want to talk or have questions. Two of the leaders did circle back. I think it was because I was able to withhold my judgment and hear them out that they felt safe to come back.

“My second takeaway is that I’m not thinking everyone has to be 100% on board. A person, or even a situation, can be okay even if they’re not all wonderful. No one or situation is all good or bad. Nothing is going to be perfect.”

I said, “It sounds like you’re upending the perfectionism that’s rampant in our culture. We think everything has to be just right or just so to be valued or valuable. (Petra nodded.) With that pressure off, it seems like you’re accepting your own and other’ humanity, all messiness and beauty in there together.”

Petra said, “I am. An example is one of my direct reports needed to talk with the Chief Financial Officer; she felt uneasy about the conversation. I suggested that she look at it from his perspective. Everything in his world has to add up; it’s either black, white or red.”

I said, “Sounds like you were teaching cultural intelligence, teaching her to accept the CFO where he is and adapt her words to meet him there. How’d their conversation go?”

Petra said, “That’s exactly what I was doing. My direct-report told me she felt the conversation went well. The CFO responded well to her idea. I felt good about how I’d helped her reframe their conversation.”

Petra said, “The third takeaway is I’m learning to affirm others.”

I said, “It seems like you were doing that before, no?”

Petra said, “Well now I’m more intentional about it. I used to think, because I don’t need affirmation, neither do other people. It was harsh and I know differently now.”

I asked, “What’s affirmation to you?”

Petra said, “Affirmation is accepting people where they are and where they’re hurting.  It’s letting the other person know it’s okay to be where they are. An example is a friend of mine, whose son just came out to her as gay. I had a chance to listen to her express how hard it has been. I practiced being okay with where she is and affirmed her feelings. Because another friend of hers had launched into her own story to relate without really hearing her concern, my friend told me she was grateful I’d really listened.”

The impact

I asked Petra, “How do these takeaways impact your leadership?”

Petra said, “I feel more confident in the input that I’m giving. (She was quiet and thoughtful.) I feel more confident in my style; the way I lead is good for me and my team. (More quiet.) I feel confident in my humanity. I’m okay with how I am, with who I am.”

I said, “Do you recall, you and your boss initially hired me to help you find your voice? (Petra nodded.) All these months, we’ve never talked about you finding your voice. Instead, we affirmed you and your leadership style. Then I gave you tools based on your style of leadership. Have you found your voice?”

Petra said, “Yes, I have. I’m speaking at least 40% more than I used to. But I don’t just talk to talk; I talk when it’s necessary. When I do speak now, I’m confident. Also, my boss has dropped telling me I need to find my voice.”

I said, “That’s great to hear! I appreciate the affirmation. (Petra smiled.) Speaking of affirmation, I appreciate you suggesting that I shift my language about teaching cultural intelligence to incorporate the words ‘leadership training’ and call my work ‘culturally intelligent leadership training.’”

Petra said, “It’s what you’re really doing, Dr. Amy. (She paused.) Well, it is and it isn’t leadership training.”

I asked, “How is and isn’t this work leadership training?”

Petra said, “It’s not the kind of leadership training where someone is telling you how you should be or lead. This is leadership training where I get to be my authentic self. You’ve helped me lead in a way that’s genuine and meaningful for me. This is culturally intelligent leadership training.

Petra was accepted as the leader she is and given tools relevant and valuable for her style of leadership. That’s what allowed her to discover her confidence and ultimately her voice as a leader in the organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Who do you know in your network that would like to discover their voice as a powerful and compassionate leader? Please share this link with them.


  1. Cook, G. (Jan 24, 2012) Scientific American, “The power of introverts: A manifesto for quiet brilliance.”
  2. Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, New York: Atria Books
  3. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  4. Photo by Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash.
Cultural Intelligence is the Cure for Cultural Blindness

Cultural Intelligence is the Cure for Cultural Blindness

In a recent workshop I gave, a White CEO told the group that reports of Tyre Nichols’ death barely hit his radar screen. It hadn’t occurred to him to discuss it with anyone – at least not until he saw how much it affected his Black partner. She told him the news of the tragedy had lit up her phone with texts from family and friends. He told us he was stunned by the difference in their respective communities’ levels of response.

During our workshop, the leader told us he realized he wouldn’t have known the impact of the tragedy on the Black community if it hadn’t been for their relationship.

Research shows it’s not uncommon for people of the dominant culture in any community, organization or country to be culturally blind to the system, or cultural container, and the way it affects them and underrepresented communities.(1) If people haven’t 1) built authentic relationships with people outside their culture, 2) considered the impact of the dominant culture on marginalized people or 3) actively developed awareness of their own culture’s characteristics through education and travel, they simply don’t see the cultural container. It’s like being right-handed in a right-handed world. The system works in your favor, so you don’t notice that, for left-handed people, the desk doesn’t support their writing arm, the notebook’s spiral gets in the way and the scissors don’t work in the “wrong” hand.

See the blindness

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 culture: cultural blindness, which is also called minimization. More than two-thirds (66.8%) of people who take the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI) worldwide are right in that blind spot – the “Minimization” stage at the middle of the five stages of Cultural Intelligence.(1) The percentage is that high because it’s actually the default mindset of the dominant culture in any organization and in every society all over the world.

The problem with having so much of humanity stuck in the default is that minimizing and ignoring others’ differing experiences creates an environment in which people tend to focus on what everyone has in common and assume others’ experiences are like their own. This inadvertently minimizes, dismisses and marginalizes those of underrepresented groups. Cultural blindness – the belief that color, class, ability and generation, etc. make no difference can be well-intentioned but is definitely flawed.

Members of the non-dominant culture groups tend to be very aware of the system but go-along-to-get-along because they are not in positions of power and therefore can be hesitant or fearful to speak up or out. This dismissiveness of people’s humanity is often demoralizing and dangerous for people of non-dominant groups in any organization.

How this happens

People’s individual actions don’t come out of a void, they are a reflection of a larger system, the dominant culture surrounding them. Dr. Edward Deming (1900–93), renowned management consultant, argued that 94% of problems are caused by the system, not the individual.(2) The problem of cultural blindness, then, is not that anybody’s inherently evil but that people have an inherited ignorance of the system. The good news is, if ignorance is the fundamental problem, it’s a fixable problem.

The antidote to cultural blindness is to become more aware of the systems that influence us, which make 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, as well as recognize that each person’s experience is just one of many cultural patterns.(1)

Who I learned from

The danger is very real for my friend Kimberly St. Clair. As an African American mom, she is particularly worried about her son, who is on the spectrum. She’s can’t anticipate how he’ll behave under the pressure of a traffic stop. She was so worried that she developed a tool and curriculum, Doc Dash, designed to keep civilians and officers safe during traffic stops.

Kimberly developed the products because traffic stops are the most common form of police-civilian engagement and one of the most dangerous duties police officers have to perform. Police in the U.S. pull over more than 50,000 drivers each day, which amounts to more than 20 million motorists a year.(3)

But the real problem are the police and civilian fatalities. Police in the U.S. killed 1,192 people. And despite being only 13% of the population, Black people were 26% of those killed by police in 2022. Tyre Nichols’ violent death was a result of one of these interactions.(4)

Because, statistically, people of the dominant culture are unaware of systems and their impact on others, they don’t necessarily have the practice, skills and vocabulary to talk and learn with people who have been historically silenced. That’s probably why so often, after a tragedy like Tyre Nichols’ death, Kimberly is asked by her White friends what they can do to help.

When you know better you do better

It’s no one’s fault how the system works but when you know better you can do better. Particularly important for people of dominant culture, you can upend cultural blindness by developing your cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a person to accept and appreciate another’s perspective and choose words and actions that show genuine respect.

With cultural intelligence you can….

  1. Educate yourself about the characteristics of your dominant culture and its influence on how you think, talk and act.
  2. Learn how the dominant culture impacts people of historically underrepresented groups and block access to legal, financial, educational, mental and physical well-being.
  3. Lift up voices that all too often go unheard for greater authenticity, safety and collaboration for everyone.

There are many ways to lift up others’ voices and be an ally. Most important for people of dominant culture is to be alert to how minimization inadvertently infiltrates our conversation even with the best of intentions. To be a culturally intelligent ally, you can…

Listen, don’t talk. Resist the temptation to jump in and speak for someone before you talk with them. Don’t assume you know what they need. That would be minimization. Learn about their experience. You could say, “Would you mind telling me about your experience? What do you hope for?” For an example, read the “How it works” section in this article: “How Effective Leaders Use Connection not Correction.”

Focus on them, not you. It can be tempting to get people to focus on you as the advocate, but you end up minimizing their voice. Leaders make it about the other person and step back. They might say: “Elena gave me permission to share her idea.” Or, “Aaron had an insight – would you like to share that now, Aaron?”

Talk with them, not about them. Effective leaders don’t guess based on appearance but find out from the source what the needs are. They notice who’s not in the room who can be impacted by their decisions. Leaders do the rounds and walk the floor to learn first-hand. They ask, “What are the needs?” then later paraphrase what they heard and say, “Do I understand correctly, is this what really matters to you?”

Learn from your mistakes. When you overstep and get called out, it’s tempting to drop into silence with shame or react in anger by defending yourself. Instead S.T.O.P. – slow down, take a breath, observe your feelings and imagine how the other person feels, then proceed with curiosity and wonder to see what you can learn about how the dominant culture impacts others. So often it’s in that moment of vulnerability that we find compassion for others and can perceive practices or policies that need to change.

Recognize that trust is built over time. After years of being belittled under the system of minimization, people of non-dominant groups may hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss even when asked to speak up. In this blog, journalist Abby explained, “As a White person, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from underrepresented groups who may be unaccustomed to being heard. To create a space where they feel safety and trust. It’s worth the time investment because I get to meet and talk with people I never would have known before and get their story.”

Speak up for others. If someone says something hateful or ignorant, invite them to share what happened that made them feel the way they do. Whether or not you can imagine what happened or agree with their conclusion, you can affirm their feelings. Then you might ask if you can share your perspective. For an example of how to speak up in a way the person can hear you, read my article, “How to Deal with an Ignorant Remark.”


When we know better, we can do better by stepping up as an ally with compassion and courage. When we work in cahoots – noticing and naming gaps, striving to create a culture where both historically dominant and non-dominant group members together feel heard, seen and valued – that’s when diversity benefits everyone. When community members use their cultural intelligence to appreciate everyone’s experience is unique and we can all learn from one another, this is what enables us to create safe communities and companies where everyone feels like they belong. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

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


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Deming, E. (2012) The System of Profound Knowledge.,theory%20of%20knowledge%20and%20psychology
  3. Levin, S (April 21, 2022) The Guardian. “US police have killed nearly 600 people in traffic stops since 2017, data shows.”
  4. Mapping Police Violence Database:
  5. Photo credit: David Underland on Unsplash
Effective Leaders Use Connection Not Correction

Effective Leaders Use Connection Not Correction

“What did we do wrong this time?” Ralph wondered when he saw the email. Ralph (not his real name), who is White, is VP of Operations for a hospital group, and one of the leaders who participates in my monthly Executive Coaching sessions. Because of his position, he’s copied on email complaints directed toward the various departments, in this case Marketing.

In this email, one of the Black doctors on staff expressed frustration about a billboard that depicted just one White doctor suggesting a different reality than the diversity their hospital group employs.

Ralph told us he understood why this doctor was frustrated. He also wondered if the doctor realized the hospital group had other billboards that included doctors of color. He kind of wanted to point that out to him – in effect, to correct him.

I’ll get to why that’s not the best way to handle a situation like this in a moment, but first let’s look at what Ralph did that was good: Ralph could see both sides.

I pointed out to the group of executives that by noticing and naming both his own frustration and the doctor’s, Ralph was demonstrating acceptance. Acceptance is one of the five stages of cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a person to accept or appreciate both their own and another’s perspective and adapt words and actions to show genuine respect.

The five stages of cultural intelligence include: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®), an online inventory that assesses an individual or group’s level of cultural intelligence, their level of ability to talk with people who are different. Because 66.8% of the population worldwide are found to be in the mindset of Minimization, Ralph is unique. He is part of the 14% of the population worldwide who have a mindset of Acceptance.(1)

What acceptance is and isn’t

People in the mindset of Acceptance are curious about and interested in cultural differences and similarities.(1) They recognize the inherent dignity of themselves and others and are accepting of their own and others’ mistakes, imperfections, gifts and circumstances as they are. It’s not that they are any less judgmental than the rest of us, but what they do is lower their initial resistance to a person or situation enough to get contemplative.

Resistance is the opposite of acceptance. Resistance is a pulling away from the reality of another that leads to a rejection of them based on incomplete information. Seeing reality can be tricky because each person has a viewpoint, a view from just one point, that can cloud the lens through which they look.(2)

With clouded lenses or a narrow perspective, it can be awkward talking with someone who has a different perspective. When we feel awkward, a normal response can be to dismiss the other person, blame them for the discomfort or lash out at them in anger.

To get beyond the resistance we feel, a culturally intelligent person knows they can get contemplative. In contemplation, we slow down, take a breath and reconnect our head with our heart.

With head and heart connected, we can see the reality of the situation or the other person, as Ralph did. He had accepted that both he and the doctor had good points. Acceptance is the foundation for the next mindset on the cultural intelligence continuum, Adaptation, the stage in which a person knows how to build on their Acceptance and adapt their words and actions to show genuine respect.

I asked Ralph if he wanted to discuss how to adapt his words to show the respect he feels. He said he’d appreciate that. I suggested he reach out to the doctor, hear about his experience and affirm the doctor’s feelings.

How it works

Ralph asked, “What does that sound like? Do I say, ‘I understand your perspective but here’s the rest of the story?’”

I said, “I appreciate how you started by saying you understand his perspective. But the trick is not just saying it, it’s actually seeking it. With cultural intelligence, the goal is to get to a shared understanding with the other person. That’s how you create a connection.”

I asked Ralph if he wanted words he might use. Ralph said he’d like that.

“You might say, ‘It sounds like you’re frustrated with marketing. The billboard doesn’t represent the diversity of our hospital staff and the hard work of employees of color. That’s got to be tough.’ Then you could drop into quiet. Take a moment to see if he’d be willing to share more about what it has been like for him. Doing that can have the effect of affirming their feelings and experience,

“If you keep the conversation about him, rather than trying to correct or change his mind, you’ll understand more about his reality and he’ll feel heard.”

Ralph said, “It would be a lot easier if he just understood my perspective.”

I said, “Absolutely it would be easier. And it’s opportunities like these that allow you and your leadership team to bring down barriers of communication within the whole hospital group.

“Because you are in Acceptance, you’re well-positioned to appreciate that the doctor is coming from an emotional place because probably all too often he has been sidelined or silenced. That’s why I suggested you acknowledge his feelings and experience. We usually need to do that several times before a person feels truly heard.

What happened

Ralph said he would try it and circle back.

Just a few hours later, he texted me that the conversation went well. Ralph said, “At least for me the conversation went well. I’m not sure how it went for the doctor, though.”

I called him and suggested, “This is the perfect time to lean in and show your genuine interest in him. You can call him back and say just what you said to me. ‘That conversation went well for me but what was the impact on you?’” Ralph was intrigued and said he would definitely call the doctor back.

Just a few hours later, he called to tell me he had reached out to the man and checked his impact. That’s when the doctor opened up and explained how he had felt sidelined a number of times over the last few months; the billboard was just the final straw.

He shared how he’d done extra work in medical school to develop his specialty area and how the billboard had made him think his work wasn’t worth the trouble. Ralph told me he really felt for the guy and told him so. Ralph ended the call by letting the doctor know he didn’t need to bury his feelings anymore. He should let him know any time there’s a concern; he would like to address it with him.

The doctor told Ralph he appreciated his understanding and said he could imagine it must be hard to get complaints. The doctor thanked him for listening.

Ralph’s experience was a perfect illustration of the power of cultural intelligence. Because he wanted to build on his Acceptance and turn a doctor’s complaint into an opportunity to listen and show his appreciation, he and the doctor developed a shared understanding. Their relationship became more genuine. The doctor felt valued and seen for the first time in his work with this hospital group.

Connection Not Correction

Ralph realized he may need to get the marketing group to do a better job of communicating internally about their campaign. But before he could do that, Ralph needed to take this first step. When a person has been historically marginalized, whether that’s because of race, gender, age, orientation or ability, leaders discover they’re increasingly more effective when they seek to develop a shared understanding with their employees. Genuine human connection, not correction, allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, increasing engagement, collaboration and innovation for everyone in the organization. -Amy Narishkin, PhD

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


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Rohr, R. (2021) Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media.
  3. Photo credit: Photo by Zuzana Ruttkay on Unsplash
The Great Attrition or The Great Appreciation?

The Great Attrition or The Great Appreciation?

“It wasn’t an easy decision to leave,” said Diana, a manager who’d been a client of mine. We met for coffee, and she explained what happened. Diana said, “I avoided looking for another job for months. My husband and I have two children to support, and we were anxious about dropping down to just one salary.”

I asked Diana, “What finally prompted you to leave?”

Diana: “While I was on vacation with my family at Disney World, my boss called with a question. I just stood there dumbfounded. It was midday. My husband, our kids and I were there in the middle of the park, and she fully expected me to give her an informed response on the spot.”

Amy: “That’s rough. What was it like in your job day-to-day?”

Diana: “I’d been working 50-60 hours a week and, despite all my effort, my boss made me feel invisible. And to make things worse, when I made an error, she would throw me under the bus by documenting the mistake in an email to the executive team.”

Amy: “The finger-pointing must have been heartbreaking!”

Diana: “It was. Also, sometimes I’d be up until 10 or 11 PM on the phone working with my boss. The next morning, she would call and ask about why something wasn’t done yet, even when she knew full well that all I’d had time for was to go to sleep and get the kids off to school the next day.

Amy: “That sounds exhausting.”

Diana: “It was! But the most discouraging part was her lack of clear expectations. I never knew how to make her happy. Her expectations were always changing. What was unbelievable was, she couldn’t tell me what her expectations were even when we met with the VP of HR!

Amy: “Sounds like her expectations were a moving-target. That’s got to be tough!” (Diana nodded.)

What’s happening in industry

Clearly, Diana was poised to be part of the “Great Attrition.” Across industries, employers are being forced to “ride the wave” of the Great Attrition. How do we stem the tide and stabilize retention? McKinsey estimates that up to 40% of workers in the US are ready to leave their jobs, in part because increasing opportunities after the pandemic leave fewer reasons to tolerate abusive managers.(1)

But “rather than take the time to investigate the true causes of attrition, many companies are jumping to well-intentioned quick fixes that fall flat: for example, they’re bumping up pay or financial perks, like offering ‘thank you’ bonuses without making any effort to strengthen the relational ties people have with their colleagues and their employers.”(2) This leaves an employee feeling their work is strictly a transactional relationship rather than one of personal and professional growth that includes appreciation and a sense of belonging.

What’s needed

To create that culture of appreciation and belonging so employees stick around, leaders need cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is what enables a leader to show compassion for another within their context. This allows a leader to speak and act in ways that show genuine respect, so their employees feel valued, heard, seen and engaged. When a boss uses their cultural intelligence, they create the environment for human connection we all long for, effective relationships we need to be our authentic and productive selves and a work environment where employees thrive.

What happened

A few months prior to our coffee, Diana and I had met for her Executive Coaching session. During that meeting, she was struggling with the boss she described above but wasn’t yet ready to leave. She needed time.

Then, after some time, Diana emailed me, “Dr. Amy, I quit my company. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. I wanted to reach out to say, ‘Thank you!’” I love my new boss!”

I emailed her right back, “That’s awesome news! I’d love to learn how you landed where you are and all about your new boss. She sounds terrific! In fact, I’m writing a blog about how to upend attrition. Would you like to share what’s different now, so employers can learn from your experience?” That’s when Diana and I set up our coffee. After we sat down and got caught up, I asked…

Amy: “Can you tell me what’s different? What’s your new boss like?”

Diana: “Her leadership is awesome; I’d love to brag about her!”

Amy: “Tell me!

Diana: “With my new boss, I get public praise. For example, when emails go out to the corporate attorney to check our work, my boss gives me credit for a job well done. She talks me up to her own boss. He circles back to me and lets me know she’s been singing my praises.

“Another thing I love is that we meet 1:1 every other week to follow up on projects. And when I’m talking, she gives me her full attention; it’s like I’m the only person in the world in that moment! Her questions and tone encourage me to share. She asks questions like:

  • “Where are you on this project?
  • “What do you see as the next step?
  • “How can I assist you?

“I appreciate how she speaks with me in a collaborative tone, communicating that my ideas are valued and wise. This way, she knows where I am in the project, and I know what she needs and by when. It’s such a relief to know her expectations!”

Amy: “Sounds like you feel seen and valued.” (Diana nodded.) “What does she say and do that makes you feel appreciated?”

Diana: “She’s unapologetic about how she cares for her direct-reports.”

Amy: “Would you help me understand what ‘unapologetic’ means and looks like for you?”

Diana: “For me, it means she lives, loves and works boldly. She’s a person who understands their God-given breath is the only permission that they need to be (intentional sentence ending). When one has a sense of value, humanity and a degree of peacefulness, my spirit and mind want to follow them. There is a calming energy because they are typically calm in spirit and the loving energy cannot be ignored. (I nodded.) She uses words like:

  • “Thank you for waiting for me!
  • “Diana, I’m so happy to see you!
  • “How are you feeling about that last meeting?”

Amy: “I’d love to know what she does that’s supportive.”

Diana: “She’s so supportive! She…

  1. “Truly listens to understand me and my perspective. Then rephrases my statements to ensure she got the message.
  2. “Gives me her complete and undivided attention. Treats me as an equally collaborating party by asking questions and incorporating my input into her own work and then gives me credit.
  3. “Treats me as a trusted colleague and takes into account my family obligations and time off. It’s monumental!”

Diana’s boss is an effective and compassionate leader. Creating bonds with employees breaks down communication gaps, encourages equitable opportunities and helps employees feel connected with the company. Not only does a trusted boss, mentor or advisor help ensure an employee feels valued and seen in their workplace, 90% of workers who have a trusted mentor report being happy in their job.(2)


Diana told me, “Thank you for listening, for being empathetic, for reminding me that my feelings are valid. Because of our coaching sessions, I was able to sort through my feelings and thoughts and figure out next steps. Thank you for giving me space and for reminding me of my worth. This new job is a godsend.”

Diana had the courage and vulnerability to share her concerns, reflect on her needs and consider next steps she could take. To care about her job, colleagues, clients and family, Diana needed to first care for herself. Executive coaching based on cultural intelligence provides the time, space and compassion an effective leader needs for reflection, self-care and appreciation so they can be their most efficient, productive, authentic and innovative self at work. -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

Who does this blog make you think of? Perhaps you’d like to thank them for their compassionate leadership. Please share this link with them.


  1. De Smet, A., Dowling, B., Mugayar-Baldocchi, M., & Schaninger, B. (Sept 8, 2021) McKinsey & Co: ‘Great Attrition’ or ‘Great Attraction’? The choice is yours.
  2. Wronski, L (July 16, 2019) CNBC: Nine in 10 workers who have a career mentor say they are happy in their jobs.
  3. Manian, D. and Wagstaff, E. (Nov 21, 2022) Quartz: The next big perk for Gen Z isn’t in the office: it’s belonging.
  4. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Jessica (not her real name) is an African American woman who called to ask me whether or not she should take a job. She said, “Dr. Amy, I’m calling to ask you, because every time we’ve talked, you get me.” Jessica has worked in the construction industry her whole career. She explained that she has been a project manager (PM) for the last four years. Though she has successfully managed 10 jobs, the most recent one didn’t go as well. She was downgraded to assistant PM on the current job. Jessica told me they didn’t cut her pay, but she really likes a leadership role. She said, “I like helping people out and having their back.”

At a crossroads

Jessica: “I’m at a crossroads in my life. Two of my three boys are grown and have left the house and the last one will graduate from high school in two years. My husband, who is a white man, has been encouraging me to move on and says I’m capable of so much more.”

Amy: “It doesn’t sound like you disagree with him that you are capable of more. Yet, your husband may not understand what it’s like for you as a Black woman out there in the field.”

Jessica: “That’s it. He doesn’t know what I have to deal with each day to get people to listen to me, to really hear me.” She went on to say, “This is why I’m calling you. Another organization has reached out to me to head up their procurement department. In that position, I’d have several departments reporting to me. It’s the leadership I hoped for and it’s in line with what my husband was wanting for me, but I just don’t know if it’s right for me.” At this point, she said, “I don’t think I even know who I am and what I want.”

Amy: “I get it; it’s tough when you’re unsure about next steps.

Jessica: “It is tough.”

Amy: “There’s also the fact that brains don’t like change. Change means a brain has to think and be on its toes. That means work. Brains don’t especially like work. So, to keep you safe, your brain says, ‘Run, hide, don’t go there.’”

Since Jessica had been a participant in my Workshop Series on how to diversify an organization, I used that context to relate to her experience. I said, “This is why diversifying an organization can be so tough, initially. Brains don’t typically like change. Few people want to go through the awkwardness it takes to get to know new people, especially people who think, look and act differently.”

How brains work

It’s helpful to know that when a brain comes across new information, people or situations, within nanoseconds it makes snap decisions without our permission. Brains have a lot going on and hard work equals pain. So, when it comes across something new, the steps go something like this…

  1. The brain checks: What do I already believe?
  2. Ideas that don’t fit within its experience, requires it to think; that’s not efficient.
  3. If it’s easy and efficient, the brain accepts the new thing;
  4. But if it’s hard and painful, the brain rejects the information, people or situation.

However, if we slow down and get more information, we can glean what we need to know.

Back to the story

Jessica: “That’s exactly right. The job sounds intriguing to me but the change sounds scary. I don’t know what I’m getting into and am tempted to reject the opportunity.

Amy: “Right, change is scary. And you have the added burden of not knowing how they’ll respond to you as a Black woman.”

Jessica: “Exactly.

Amy: “I don’t blame you for being hesitant. It sounds like you do know. It may just be that, as a Black woman, you have not gotten much affirmation for your experience and feelings during your life time, which is pretty common for people of under-represented groups.”

Jessica: “That’s so true. It’s like there’s a double standard out there. Not too long ago, my boss told me I needed to watch my tone. So I calmly said to him, ‘Really? Do you know how frustrating it is that I can’t sound angry or impatient without you telling me to watch my tone when you get to show your anger and slam your fist down on your desk?’ I’m a passionate woman, Amy, I need to be able to show my anger sometimes, like he does.”

Amy: “Yes you do. What did your boss say when you pointed out that contradiction?”

Jessica: “He said he didn’t realize he’d done that. He apologized.”

Amy: “You know, your story has gotten me thinking. A characteristic of dominant U.S. culture is to avoid conflict. As a result, dominant-culture people can be scared of people showing their anger, particularly people of under-represented groups. I’m guessing this is because we’re afraid someone or the situation will get out of control and we won’t know how to respond.

“But your story is compelling,” I told her. “What if you shared that story during your interview? I would just add what you said to me—you’re passionate about your work. And, because you’re from African American culture, you aren’t as inclined to avoid conflict.” You can tell your potential employer that, like everyone else, there will be times you’ll show your anger, but you won’t fly off the handle. How does that land with you?”

Jessica: “I like the idea of making my point using a story!”

More information is needed

Amy: “Jessica, you’re in a solid position, here; you can go either way. You don’t need a job and, at the same time, you seem ready for a change. So often, when we don’t know what to do it’s because we don’t have enough information. Because you don’t need the job and yet would like to learn what you’re capable of, maybe what you really need is more information.

“With that context, you can approach this next round as both interviewee and interviewer – make it more an information interview than a job interview, which can be a lot less stressful.” Here’s how I explained that to Jessica and the other workshop participants:

As interviewee: Share a story that illustrates who you are and how you’ll respond to different situations, then offer a take-away about your culture. You’re not speaking for all people of your culture, you’re simple stating a fact about the culture in general.

Because you’ve shared your personal stories, you’re being genuine. When you’ve been genuine, it encourages the person you’re talking with to respond in kind. So then…

As interviewer: Ask the interviewer, “What has it been like here for you? Would you mind telling me what about me makes it seem like I would be a good fit?”

You’ll also want to ask how women – women of color and others from under-represented groups – are cared for in the company. You can ask if and how mentoring, career-mapping and regular reviews are done.”

Jessica: “That’s true, I can tell them about me and learn about them. I like the idea of going through the interview process and getting more information before I decide. Thank you. This has been super helpful.”

Amy: “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to hear what you eventually learn or decide to do.”

Jessica: “Absolutely.”


Cultural intelligence is what enables us to show compassion for ourselves and others within our unique contexts. To realize our own needs and learn more about another context, we need to slow down and shift from being a knower to a learner. Jessica thought she simply needed to know whether she should stay or leave her job but instead discovered she needed to recognize how valuable she is and learn more about the other organization. Adopting a posture of learner, she’ll be able to show compassion for herself and embrace the process.

The next time I spoke with Jessica, she’d had her second interview and had been invited to a third. She was still learning and gleaning the information she needed. This time when we spoke, though, she was confident she’d know what to do in time.

Side note: This is so often the case. When we surrender to the process of learning and gathering all we need to know, an answer to our question becomes obvious. We almost can’t imagine that, before, we didn’t know whether to stay or go.    -Amy Narishkin, PhD

Photo credit: by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

If you are the Hiring Manager or Talent Acquisition Specialist, here’s the blog for you: A Hire Power: How to Really Get to Know a Candidate

Feeling Invisible?

Feeling Invisible?


After teaching a breakout session at the annual conference of the National Association of Women in Construction, a Latina American woman emailed me a question. Elena (not her real name) said, “It was such a pleasure meeting you at the conference and attending both of your workshops. I was fascinated by the topic and appreciate your wisdom. I walked out of our workshops with a much deeper understanding of how people can inadvertently and intentionally minimize others, making them feel invisible. I realized I make that mistake too and want to become more aware of how I’m coming across to others. It’s made me hungry to increase my cultural intelligence.”


In the workshop, I had explained that cultural intelligence (CI) is what enables a person to accept another’s perspective and choose words and actions that show genuine respect. According to the Intercultural Development Inventory®, there are five stages, or core mindsets of cultural intelligence: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation.(1) The IDI® is an online inventory that assesses an individual or group’s level of cultural intelligence, their level of ability to talk and work with people who are different. Fully 66.8% of the population around the world are found to be in the mindset of Minimization which is why Elena easily recognizes it happening.

Back to the story

Elena continued, “Now that I have an understanding of what’s happening, I recognize how much it hurts when someone minimizes me. For example, in a meeting I was in, a woman said, ‘We just need to get over worrying about foreign-born nationals.’ I’m an immigrant; that statement hurt, a lot. So my question is … how do I stop myself from getting immediately offended when a person says something like that? It’s especially hurtful when a white person says it.


Being minimized or made to feel invisible often feels like a hollow ache or even a kick in the gut – and sometimes both. It hurts every one of us.

While it hurts us all, it’s important for whites (and people who identify with the dominant culture of any organization) to know that, after years of living in a society with systemic minimization, people of color, women and those who are differently-abled may hesitate to speak up. They hesitate to speak up for fear of retaliation, misrepresentation, social isolation or job loss. When you’re from a historically marginalized group, these are real risks even when asked to speak up by a boss. Because there are no guarantees, minimizing remarks like the one Elena heard from a white woman, are especially deflating.

Back to our conversation

I said to Elena, “There’s nothing more maddening when someone says we ‘just need to get over it.’ Like we talked about in the workshop, cultural intelligence starts within, with compassion for yourself. You actually can’t feel for another until you feel for yourself. So, when someone makes an alienating remark like that woman’s, your power lies in feeling your feeling and getting contemplative,” I told her.

“When you feel anger, slow down, take a breath and…

  1. Acknowledge your emotion.
  2. Accept your heartbreak as part of your reality.
  3. Appreciate your courage.
  4. Act from a place of compassion.


These are four steps I taught Elena…

  1. Acknowledge your emotion and your history. Being made to feel invisible time and time again is wearing on a soul. It takes courage to acknowledge your feelings especially when you get so little affirmation in society. Acknowledging allows you to…
  2. Accept your heartbreak as part of your reality. You might ask, ‘What could that possibly accomplish?’ If we don’t accept both the heartbreak and beauty of our lives, resistance, self-protection and denial set in. That’s what cuts us off from experiencing our own and others’ humanity. That’s also what cuts us off from being our genuine selves and genuinely getting to know others. Acceptance is what allows you to…
  3. Appreciate your courage, the courage it takes to not react to ignorant remarks but instead respond, in your time and in your way. Take the time and space you need to soften your gaze and genuinely appreciate yourself, and the heartbreak and beauty of your own reality. Create space around that aggressive remark and wonder if it was made without forethought, out of ignorance of others’ experience. With greater understanding, your gaze softens, compassion grows and you see opportunities for collaboration and innovation that weren’t apparent before. Appreciation is what allows you to…
  4. Act from a place of compassion, which can take a minute, an hour or a week to find. Love is more of an action than it is a feeling.

Before you act, ask and answer for yourself two questions, in this order…

  1. “What do I need to care for me during this tender time?”
  2. “What is mine to do in this situation?”

Depending on the situation, your safety and your head and heart space, you could…

  1. Write an angry letter that you never send.
  2. Share your heartbreak with a trusted friend, colleague or mentor.
  3. Tell the person how their words (or actions) made you feel and see if they’re open to conversation.
  4. Point out to Human Resources alienating words people use and encourage training.
  5. Talk with your boss about how they want aggressive remarks handled.

As you acknowledge, accept, appreciate and act, you are breaking the cycle of people (including you!) feeling sidelined, silenced and invisible. You’re also upending systemic minimization.

Last bit of the story

I asked Elena, “Please email back to let me know how this information lands on you.”

Elena replied, “Thank you for this, Dr. Amy. I read it a few times and wanted to take a few days to let this information sink in before letting you know how this landed on me.

“I think what you are telling me makes great sense. I also know it is easier said than done. But I now have a roadmap to follow next time I come across ignorance that may offend me. Thank you again!”


As a white person practicing and teaching cultural intelligence, I have extra work to do – particularly with people from under-represented groups who are unaccustomed to being heard. It’s particularly important for me to create a space where they feel safety and trust. Each time I have a conversation with a person from a different background, I strive to use the four steps. It takes a bit of extra time, but it’s so worth the effort, because I get to talk and work with people I never would have had the privilege of knowing before. People like Elena!     –Amy Narishkin, PhD

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


  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Photo credit: Kasia on Unsplash –
Mutual Respect Makes for Meaningful Conversation

Mutual Respect Makes for Meaningful Conversation

“What do I do about the sexist remarks our CEO made toward the marketing staff in our senior leadership meeting?” my client, Richard asked me. Richard (not his real name) explained that, after the marketing staff made their presentation to the leadership team, the CEO told them, “Well, this is just like when you need some remodeling or something done around the house. You turn it over to your wife and just let her do it. So you gals run along and take care of it.’”

Richard said, “I don’t want to be the ‘culture police’ but, now that I see through these lenses of cultural intelligence from what you’ve been teaching us, I couldn’t help but notice them cringe when he said that. I recognize the way they were treated is just wrong. Is there anything I can do?”

I told Richard I appreciated his heart. The fact that he saw what was happening and reached out to ask me how to handle it in a way that supported his colleagues without alienating his boss is the best kind of ally.

Then I asked, “I know one of your goals is to shift your leadership work from the mindset of Minimization to Acceptance. What might Acceptance, in this case, look and sound like?”

Cultural intelligence defined

Those are concepts of cultural intelligence, which enables a person to accept and appreciate both their own and another’s perspective and to choose words and actions that show genuine respect. There are five stages, or core mindsets, in a person’s development of cultural intelligence: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance and Adaptation. The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®), an online inventory that assesses an individual or group’s level of cultural intelligence, their level of ability to talk with people who are different. Fully 66.8% of the population around the world are found to be in the mindset of Minimization. As a result, when a person realizes there’s a next stage of development and possibility for genuine connection, they ask questions like Richard’s.

Shift from minimization to acceptance

Richard said, “Acceptance is not about minimizing people but embracing them and their humanity.”

I said, “That’s it! Acceptance is about recognizing our own and each other’s humanity, which includes all our messy and beautiful parts all in there together. When we can give ourselves grace, even when we feel like a mess too, we can extend that mercy to others.” I asked him, “What might that sound like when you speak to your boss?”

Richard said, “I would remind him how many times I’ve expressed appreciation for this cultural intelligence training, how the team is now thinking more deeply about their work and its impact, as well as getting to know themselves and one another like never before. Then I’d tell him the training is also both a blessing and a curse because now I see with new eyes; I can see the impact of our words on others. So I have to point out how his words hurt the women in marketing.”

I said, “That’s awesome to start with your perspective and what you’ve been learning. That’s a culturally intelligent approach.” I asked Richard if he wanted a suggestion of how to adapt his words to demonstrate the acceptance he wants to show. He did.

I suggested, “Instead of calling him out, invite him into the work. When you call a person out, they feel blame and shame, which inadvertently puts you above them. What if you adopt a posture of learning along with your CEO? It’s a way to communicate a mutual respect that you’re learning together. He’ll likely be able to hear you better.

“You could say, ‘Peter, with these new CI lenses, it broke my heart to see the women in marketing cringe when we called them gals and inadvertently diminished their contribution when we told them to run along. Now I see we can do better by them. Can you help me think about what we might say so they feel valued and seen next time they present to our team?’”

Richard said, “I like that! Now I’m not making myself the culture police but coming alongside and learning with him.”


Richard told me he felt ready to talk with the CEO because his head and heart had shifted from being a knower to a learner. He was glad he had slowed down and taken the time to talk it out with me so that he didn’t rush in, try to correct his boss and potentially alienate him.

When a person makes an ignorant statement, leaders discover they’re increasingly more effective when they seek to develop a shared understanding based on mutual respect with that person. Genuine human connection, not correction, allows us to experience more of our own and others’ humanity, which increases engagement, collaboration and innovation for everyone in the organization.  -Amy Narishkin, PhD

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


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