The other day I almost missed my flight. I threw my stuff in the overhead bin, took my place in my bulkhead seat, and sat still for the first time all day. I welcomed the break for the first couple minutes but I got stir crazy fast. I boarded so quickly that I didn’t have time to grab any reading material and I had already read this month’s in-flight magazine. We took forever to taxi toward our takeoff and even once airborne, we had a lot of turbulence, which meant I couldn’t get out of my seat and grab my laptop. I didn’t even have a piece of paper where I could scribble down the “to do items” that were flooding my head. I was frustrated by how much time I was wasting.

Yet researchers suggest that had I handled my situation differently, I could have used the forced sedentary moment to get smarter, healthier, and more productive.  It sounds too simple but it’s true. Sit still, think, and you can improve all kinds of things, including your cultural intelligence (CQ).

Reflection is standing apart from our experiences to consider the meaning and interpretations of what occurred. It’s one of the most important steps for effectively relating across cultures. Last month I described the inadequacy of travel by itself to improve CQ and it needs to be stated here again:

  • The high school student who spends a day volunteering at the local food bank may come away making sweeping generalizations about the recipients of such programs based upon his one-day encounter. Without guided reflection alongside the experience, his one-day encounter may have little lasting impact on his CQ, or worse yet, lower his CQ.
  • And the project manager who interacts daily with colleagues from multiple time zones and cultures may be frustrated by the continued hassles and misunderstandings that occur on her virtual team. Without reflection, she may not understand and appreciate how the diversity of perspectives and viewpoints can be one of the greatest strengths to the project.

But when we take time to reflect upon an intercultural experience, it’s likely to improve our CQ. What does it mean to “reflect”?

1. Describe the Experience
When I frantically boarded my recent flight, I had just finished speaking at a one-day conference with leaders from several nationalities. Taxi and takeoff were ideal times to reflect on what the day had been like.  What happened, how did people respond, what was different from expected?

Or I could have just as easily spent the time trapped in Seat 1C reflecting on the interaction I just had with the Somali taxi driver who dropped me off…Or mentally describing the Latino gate agent who seemed unfazed by my urgency to catch the flight. The point is to ruminate on the intercultural experiences we encounter all day long.

2. Explore Deeper
All too often reflective experiences stop with “description.” This is particularly true when people are told to “journal”. They record what they did but the real benefit of reflective thinking occurs when we begin to examine the experience in light of other objectives, priorities, and assumptions.

One way to explore an intercultural experience more deeply is by asking ourselves several questions. We usually get lazy after one or two but the goal is to keep asking yourself questions about the experience and what it might reveal. At least five questions is a good goal. Keep going. And think about whether your answers are sound. Compare your interpretations with what experts have discovered based upon research. And talk with others. Dig deeper into the meaning behind your experiences.

3. Transfer Learning
Finally, see if you can extrapolate some kind of learning for future use. This might include goals for future action that can be taken forward in the next experience like this one or connecting it more broadly to other learning and work. You might ask:

  • What possible paths could I take from here?
  • What ideas might move this forward?
  • What are some different ways to tackle this kind of situation next time?

A great deal of my understanding of reflection is informed by Donald Schon, a foremost thought leader on the power of reflection-on-action to improve future behavior. This is at the crux of what we assess and develop in our work on CQ Strategy—your awareness and ability to plan for multicultural interactions.

Everyday Practices for Reflection
Here are a few simple practices for incorporating reflection into our frenetic lives:

1. Just Breathe
Mindfulness training and meditation courses always begin with the importance of paying attention to our breath. Stop for three minutes and breathe deeply. Listen to your breath. No one is so busy they can’t afford three minutes.

2. Retreat to Nature
A natural environment better conditions you for reflection. In today’s high-tech society, many of us sit for long hours in front of screens, sometimes doing boring activities that cause a level of mental fatigue that was unknown to our ancestors. Take a 15 minute break from an artificial environment. Go for a walk in the park and clear your head.

3. Dialogue with Others
Combine your inner contemplation with conversation with others. Be intentional about finding conversation partners who won’t always agree with you and who don’t see everything the same way. Describe, explore, and transfer learning together.

4. Write
Thinking and writing are different. Thinking is unstructured, disorganized, and chaotic. But writing  encourages you to create a story line and structure to make sense of what happened and work toward a solution. Even a few sentences, words images, or questions can be valuable aids for tapping the power of reflection.

5. On-the-Fly
Commute times are an ideal time to reflect before and after an experience. Instead of returning voice mails, reading emails, and surfing your smart phone, you’re likely to improve productivity (and CQ!) more by staying unplugged for a 10 minute commute rather than multi-tasking. Walking the dog, moving from one meeting to the next, and washing dishes are all built-in opportunities for reflection.

Many intercultural experiences are devoid of reflection and as a result, make little impact. But when we discipline ourselves to think deeply before, during and after an intercultural experience, we improve our CQ, increase our productivity, and broaden the horizons of ourselves and others.

Read “From Experience to Experiential Learning: Cultural Intelligence as a Learning Capability for Global Leader Development” for additional insights on reflection, international experiences, and CQ.

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