How to Facilitate Productive CQ Conversations

davidlivermore | February 20th, 2017 No Comments

 

The day after the U.S. election, I was having breakfast with some friends in Toronto. They looked at me white faced. “What happened last night?” They were in shock and a bit bewildered about what a Trump presidency meant for them as Canadians. Two days later, I was back in Michigan having lunch with a friend who was doing a victory dance that the days of the Obama legacy were over. Both conversations and dozens since then have pushed me to think more deeply about how to engage in productive conversations with people who have different perspectives. The vitriolic social media posts and cable news arguments do very little. But neither does playing it safe and avoiding all potential conflict.

Diversity fatigue is not going away. Particularly with political riffs dividing friends and family, many people have had enough of it all and long for the days when recipes and cat videos filled their Facebook page. While this applies to political conversations, I’m actually interested in thinking about it far more broadly than that.

Whether we’re designing a diversity workshop or engaging in conversations with friends about immigration and national security, there’s a fine line between discussion that moves the conversation forward and those that simply make things worse. Those of us committed to building bridges and removing barriers for intercultural understanding have to find the zone of productive disequilibrium. This is an idea that stems from the field of adaptive leadership and it refers to finding the optimal zone of discomfort that yields productive understanding, reflection, and change. If we’re too disoriented and uncomfortable, we’re unlikely to learn. But without any disorientation and discomfort, growth won’t happen.

Most people who facilitate diversity workshops and global leadership courses are zealous about exposing the cultural blunders and injustices that occur as people from different cultures interact together. But we sometimes forget our own journey toward discovering these things and we attempt to bring others along in a single workshop. Other times we become too timid and don’t push the envelope far enough in order to avoid too much backlash.

This is something I’m still trying to figure out myself but here are a few guidelines for designing productive CQ conversations:

1. The First Five Minutes

The first five minutes with a group sets the tone for the entire conversation or workshop. The first place we as CQ practitioners need to apply our own CQ is to understand the audience. The very “cultural understanding” we exhort in our seminars is the kind of work we need to do when preparing to teach or discuss CQ and related issues.

The first five minutes is crucial. When I talk with business leaders, I get to the “bottom line” implications of high versus low CQ as quickly as possible. With military leaders, I’m learning to move swiftly to describing the relevance of CQ for providing strategic gains and mission success. And with non-profit leaders, a little bit of discussion about CQ and productivity is okay but in most cases, I better address issues of justice and equity within the first few moments or I’ll be dismissed. I would hope every CQ session would be customized to the specific audience but the first five minutes is perhaps where that customization is most important.

Surely business leaders need to think beyond financial implications just as non-profit leaders need to eventually consider the relevance of CQ to issues of productivity and fiscal responsibility. But an understanding of the immediate needs will help ensure that we begin by assuring individuals that CQ will address some of their deeply held concerns and pain points.

2. Ground Rules vs. PC Language

I’ve often told groups that I think politically correct language is counterproductive to building cultural intelligence. If people can’t honestly discuss some of their biases and frustrations, there’s little hope we can truly build CQ.  But I’ve sometimes observed that my admonition for us to speak candidly has been misinterpreted by a few as a license to say anything, no matter how offensive it might be.

Part of finding the productive zone for CQ conversations is liberating people from feeling like they’re walking on eggshells to even enter a conversation about politics or race. On the other hand, the whole thing goes sideways fast if participants in the group start speaking pejoratively. Take the time to establish some ground rules upfront and don’t hesitate to enforce them and take charge of the room if someone says something that violates the rules. It’s a lot easier for people to experience disequilibrium if they know the boundaries.

3. No Single Stories Allowed

A number of studies are emerging that suggest if not done well, intercultural training can lower CQ rather than improve it. In responding to the requests for training about Brazilians, Millennials, or Latinos, we can end up perpetuating the danger of the single story. This idea comes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk where she says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

I encountered this up close recently when my friend, Betsy DeVos, was nominated as Secretary of Education. Betsy and I have different views politically and I have concerns about how the privatization of education affects the disadvantaged. But I’ve also worked alongside Betsy for nearly a decade, both of us serving on the board of a non-profit organization and she’s not the ignorant, power-grabbing, homophobe she was made out to be as a part of the confirmation process. She’s a resilient woman so I’m not worried about her ability to endure SNL clips about Grizzly bears. But what saddens me is that the process never moved toward a constructive debate about the varying views on what’s best for education in the U.S. All of us are more complicated that a single story based on where we’re from, how we voted, or the color of our skin. Challenge any attempts at reducing an individual or group to a single story.

4. Monitor the Temperature

In facilitating CQ conversations, we have to keep our hand on the thermostat. If the temperature of the discussion is too cold, people won’t feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions. If it gets too hot, people are likely to dismiss it all together or simply become more calcified in what they already thought.

As much as possible, depersonalize the conflict in the room—particularly if it comes to you personally. The purpose is to disagree about the issues and perspectives rather than to defend yourself. If at all possible, find someone else in the room who can help you monitor the temperature. Someone who isn’t directly responsible for facilitating the session will often observe things you miss. One CQ facilitator recently told me she and her colleague actually have a hand symbol they use with each other to note when the temperature of the discussion and interaction seems too hot or cold.

5. Provide Some Resolution

We don’t have to end a session with a “happily ever after” story line, but we do need to provide some sort of resolution to the disequilibrium we create. I’ve been guilty of exposing groups to issues of privilege or cultural ignorance and then just leaving them with it. That’s unfair. There aren’t simple answers to many of the tensions we expose, but if we’re going to make people aware of something like implicit bias or the ways others perceive their culture, it’s unfair to do so unless we offer some direction on what to do with that understanding.

I’m still sorting this through. So I’d love to hear what others are learning about how to facilitate productive conversations that build cultural intelligence.

2017: A Year Made for CQ

davidlivermore | January 24th, 2017 No Comments

It’s hard to imagine a year better suited for cultural intelligence (CQ) than 2017.

Immigrants and refugees question where they’re welcome. Working class people wonder who cares about their welfare. And political riffs have alienated friends and family.

CQ exists for such a time as this.

We’re launching a yearlong campaign: What’s Your CQ?

 

 

CQ is for everyone…white people, people of color, politicians, leaders, students, liberals, and conservatives…

And it starts with you and me.

We hope you’ll join us in taking the spirit and movement of CQ broader and deeper in 2017.

#whatsyourCQ

We’re All Scared of the Same Things…or Are We? Emotional Differences Across Cultures

davidlivermore | December 13th, 2016 No Comments

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Last week I had the misfortune of seeing a Chinese man jump from a tall building in Shanghai to his death below. My heart stopped. What could possibly lead this guy to such immense despair?

What happened next traumatized me almost as much as the actual suicide sighting. Several people gathered around and were quietly laughing. Some took pictures and others were calling to their friends to come see what happened. I was so unnerved by the whole scene. Why were people laughing? Why wasn’t anyone covering his body? Moments later, the police showed up and I went on my way.

Times like these bring our humanity up close. How do we respond to the existential questions of life? And how do we face tragedy together? Yet these situations also highlight our profound differences.

Paul Ekman’s groundbreaking work sheds some light on the similarities and differences in how all 7.5 billion of us react emotionally to the same events. Ekman is a clinical psychologist who has spent the last several decades researching how to read emotions through facial expressions. Among the many seminal findings from his work, there are a couple critical points that are relevant to cultural intelligence:


EMOTIONAL TRIGGERS: WHAT SETS YOU OFF?

First, there’s a set of universal triggers that elicit the same emotion in nearly all of us.

  • The sight of something coming straight at you triggers fear, regardless of your personality or culture. From people in rural China to urbanites in London and Capetown, the sight of an oncoming car elicits the “flight” response (“Danger! I need to move out of the way”).
  • A similar trigger occurs when experiencing unexpected, rough turbulence in flight. Even seasoned flight attendants admit that when they don’t expect it, a sudden jolt in the air frightens them.

Ekman claims that every human being has an auto appraisal system that monitors when we’re in danger. With practice and experience, some overcome these universal fears. But a primal response has evolved within all of us toward a certain set of triggers.

Second, there are unique triggers that are a result of how we’ve been socialized. Individuals from some cultures feel extremely annoyed when people cut in line while it doesn’t even faze others. People from some cultures are irritated when people speak loudly and others couldn’t care less about that. Some cultures are afraid of the oceans. Others seek it out. These variances stem primarily from how we were brought up. In addition, there are other triggers, which are rooted in our unique personalities and experiences (e.g. post-traumatic stress).


EMOTIONAL EXPRESSIONS: HOW DO YOU DISPLAY YOUR EMOTIONS?

Next, Ekman contends that people across all cultures have a universal way of expressing seven emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness.

Initially this claim didn’t ring true to me. Surely we can’t say that Germans, Chinese, and Italians all express happiness the same way. Isn’t nonverbal communication culturally conditioned? Yes and no.

Through a series of renowned, peer-reviewed studies, Ekman makes a convincing case that people all over the world signal happiness with the corners of their mouths up and their eyes contracted. Anger is expressed with the corners of the mouth down and sadness is expressed with the eyelids drooping. Even individuals who have been blind from birth manifest the same nonverbal expressions.


EMOTIONAL DISPLAY RULES: HOW SHOULD YOU MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS?

How does this explain the fact that some cultures (e.g. African Americans and Italians) are usually far more affective in expressing their emotions while others cultures (e.g. Japanese and Germans) are far more neutral.

Cultural differences come into play by promoting the rules for how to appropriately manage emotional expressions. Parents teach children the appropriate display rules for various occasions, which get reinforced at school, through the media, and with peers. When should you show emotion, when should you exaggerate it, and when should you mask it? Our cultures teach us how to manage our feelings and we learn which emotions are appropriate for which situations. We develop mechanisms for masking seemingly inappropriate expressions.

This brings me back to the horrific suicide I witnessed last week. It may well be that the giggling by my fellow bystanders was a disguise for their horror. Fake laughter and giggles are a very common response to nervousness and discomfort among many Asian cultures. In all fairness, others looking at me in that moment would have had little idea that I felt a sense of grief and despair when encountering this event. I stood there for a moment with a very staid, neutral response given that my parents taught me that a neutral, stone face was the appropriate response to solemn occasions. Someone who learns how to read microexpressions can discern when a facial expression is masking something else.


CQ PICKS UP WHERE EQ LEAVES OFF

Cultural intelligence stems from the same body of research as emotional intelligence (EQ). Emotional intelligence is the first step in improving the way you work and relate with others. There’s little hope we can interact effectively in culturally diverse settings if we first can’t understand and regulate the emotions of ourselves and others like us. But cultural intelligence allows us to have those same social sensibilities when interacting with people who display their emotions in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Giggles may mean laughter in one culture and embarrassment in another. Some individuals have been socialized to express anger by yelling while others simmer in silence.

When you’re irritated by a behavior that seems rude or awkward (last month’s topic), consider alternative explanations for the behavior (e.g. giggling may not mean someone thinks a tragedy is funny). In addition, careful consideration in the midst of an emotional trigger can diminish the power of the trigger when used repeatedly. If you consistently reflect on whether turbulence really puts you in danger or whether a spider is really going to harm you, you can begin to diminish the power of the emotional response. The same is true for behaviors that annoy you. If you reflect on the intent behind a loud talker or someone who spits in public, it can diminish how much it upsets you.

We’re remarkably different in how we go about our profound similarities. When your counterpart seems foreign, start with what you have in common. And perhaps our shared humanity is the starting point for providing one another with the hope each of us needs to get through one day after the next. After all, we’re in this together.

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Use the Cultural Value Profile to assess the degree to which you and your teammates have a more “neutral” vs. “affective” approach to managing your emotions.

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