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What I’ve Learned From 10 Years Leading The CQ Center

davidlivermore | January 19th, 2021 No Comments

Ten years ago, I left my day job at a university to devote my full attention to leading the Cultural Intelligence Center. We officially incorporated the Center in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2011 that we set ourselves up as a fully viable organization. This was the same year that Osama bin Laden was killed, the Arab Spring emerged, and riots were occurring across the UK, Myanmar, and the US. The time was ripe to take cultural intelligence beyond the ivory tower and into the real world.

I was scared and excited. Would there be enough work to support my family? Were enough people committed to improving how they work with people from different backgrounds to support an organization solely focused on cultural intelligence? Apparently yes! Ten years later, I’ve logged millions of miles, taught thousands of leaders, and been joined by dozens of staff and associates who are taking this work further than I ever dreamed.  

As we cross this ten-year milestone, I wanted to share a few of my personal reflections, not in any particular order. 

1. FOLLOW YOUR CURIOSITY, NOT YOUR BUSINESS PLAN

People often ask me for advice on how to take an idea like cultural intelligence and monetize it. There are experts who teach that kind of thing, but I never set out to be a business owner, author, or speaker. I’ve been fascinated by people and cultures for as long as I can remember. That’s what drove me to pursue the jobs I had, the research I did, and eventually, the books and speaking that emerged. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspect of leading the CQ Center, but the work we do is what got me started and what keeps me going. 

2. CQ IS NOT A SILVER BULLET

Soon Ang, Linn Van Dyne, and I are incredibly humbled by the way CQ has been adopted by so many individuals and organizations around the world. But we sometimes encounter individuals who are more dogmatic about the benefits of CQ than we are. The research supporting CQ’s predictive validity is astounding. But it’s not a be-all, end-all to the complex issues of colliding people and cultures. CQ provides a critical link for offering individuals and organizations the foundational skills for working effectively with diverse groups. We do a disservice when we present CQ as the silver bullet. 

3. STOP SHOUTING AT PEOPLE

I’ve learned a lot about addressing issues of racism, privilege, and intercultural understanding over the last decade. Sometimes I’ve kept the conversation too clinical and safe, and other times, I’ve let it get too heated. Some will disagree with me, but I haven’t seen any lasting benefit from shouting at people about their ethnocentrism or privilege. I’m not afraid to make people uncomfortable—that’s where real growth happens. But I haven’t seen any lasting impact from shaming diatribes. We have to find the zone of productive disequilibrium. 

4. TAKE WHAT YOU NEED FROM CRITICISM AND MOVE ON

I’ve learned far more from my critics than from my fans. But there have also been too many times when I allowed one dissenting voice in a seminar to overtake the whole day. One of the first CQ seminars I taught had so much negative energy in the room, and I just couldn’t figure it out. I knew there were some things I could improve, but I felt pretty confident I did what the client wanted. Only later did I learn that a couple of the participants had just learned they were being laid off but weren’t allowed to discuss it. We never know what other dynamics are going on for someone. Reflect on criticism, learn from it, and then keep going.

5. CQ IS A LOT HARDER TO APPLY THAN TEACH

The first few years, our staff was just me and a couple of other individuals. Our small team did everything—answer inquiries, printing, and shipping, training, billing, etc. In the last four years, our staff’s size and diversity have grown exponentially, with people from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and skillsets joining us across multiple time zones. Just like we teach, our diversity has made us stronger but wow! It’s a whole lot easier to teach CQ to other organizations than it is to apply it to ourselves. We’ve made some mistakes along the way, and we’re committed to continuing to grow in our own pursuit to BE a culturally intelligent organization! 

6. A SPIRIT OF GENEROSITY WINS

Call me an idealist, but I expected the intercultural industry to be a place that welcomed and celebrated different models, assessments, and training approaches. After all—isn’t that what we teach? Instead, what I’ve found is a highly competitive and, at times, antagonistic dynamic between many intercultural consultants and organizations. I hear way too many stories about intercultural training organizations pitting themselves against others doing the same work. There’s so much work that needs to be done, so why not cheer on any effort to improve the way we bridge our divides? Julia Middleton from Common Purpose, Ted Dale from Aperian Global, and the late Geert Hofstede were people I was told were competitors, but in reality, I found them to be friends and colleagues I’ve come to know and trust. I could list many others as well. Comparing notes with others in the field has been nothing but fruitful.

7. AWARENESS AND CONVERSATION AREN’T ENOUGH

So much of what happens in the name of diversity and cultural competence training is an emphasis on self-understanding and dialogue. If we don’t first understand our own cultures, there’s little hope we can work and relate effectively with someone from a different culture. But simply knowing that I’m more individualist than you doesn’t give me the skills I need to work effectively with you. We have to keep getting better at teaching skills and developing solutions that bring a lasting behavior change. 

8. ACADEMICS NEED PRACTITIONERS. PRACTITIONERS NEED ACADEMICS

I’ve lived most of my professional life with one foot in the academic world and the other in the applied world. Those divergent worlds characterize our work at the CQ Center as well. Linn Van Dyne and I are ruthlessly committed to research that is robust and relevant. As a world-leading psychometrician, Linn holds me accountable to ensure we’re remaining true to the research. But she’s equally open to hearing my input on ways to present the research to ensure it’s meaningful and relevant to practitioners.

9. IT TAKES CQ TO MAKE A CASE FOR CQ

I talk with many CQ practitioners who are frustrated by how hard it is to get organizations and leaders to invest in cultural intelligence programs. The best tool for “selling” CQ is our own CQ! The perspective-taking and adaptation of language that we exhort people to use when working with a colleague from a different background need to be used when we talk with an HR director or dean about how CQ is relevant to their organizations. We need to beware of demonizing an individual who wants to know the bottom-line impact of CQ. Organizations have real-time and budgetary constraints, and it’s on us to make a case for them in a way that resonates.  

10. JOURNALING AND RUNNING ARE MY SECRET SAUCE

I recently went back and read my journals from the last decade. I think I learned as much from re-reading them as I did from when I wrote them. If you’ve read anything I’ve written or listened to me speak, I can guarantee those thoughts were worked out first with my pen and my running shoes. I journal and run almost every day, wherever I am in the world. These habits allow me to be free from my phone, ruminate on ideas, and take in my surroundings. 

I’m enormously grateful for the work we’ve been able to do over the last decade, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. Everything suggests our world will be even more interconnected over the next ten years than it is today. That’s sure to bring growing collisions of different ideologies, people, and cultures. But it also offers incredible potential. CQ is bigger than any one of us. But together, cultural intelligence provides a way to improve the ways we live together, solve problems together, and recognize one another’s dignity. Here’s to another ten years of striving to build a more culturally intelligent world together.

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We’re In A Crisis! Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

davidlivermore | October 19th, 2020 No Comments

A global pandemic has done little to bridge our tribal divides: Maskers vs. Anti-Maskers, Nationalists vs. Globalists, Police Supporters vs. Black Lives Matter…and the list keeps going.

If there was ever a time to put aside our differences, it’s now. We need the creativity, resources, and discipline of all of us to fight Covid-19 and its myriad spill-over effects on mental health, economical progress, education, and the list goes on.

Research from a variety of studies, including some of our cultural intelligence findings, points to a seemingly simple solution—Get divided groups to talk to each other to solve a shared problem. It sounds a little too Pollyannaish to be true—right? If the back and forth on social media is any indication, voicing different opinions is doing little to reduce tribalism. And the sound of manila dialogue about racism, economic fallout, and national elections leaves me bored. But that’s not the kind of conversation I’m after. We need culturally intelligent conversations that use our differences to get us out of this mess.

Let’s begin with a refresher on Muzafer Sherif’s classic Robber’s Cave Experiment. Sherif and his colleagues brought two groups of 12-year-old boys to camp. They were all white kids from similar middle-class backgrounds, and none of them knew each other prior to the study. Each group arrived at camp, unaware of the other group’s existence. The first week, they bonded with their respective groups by hiking, swimming, sharing meals, and doing all the fun things you do at camp. They named themselves the Eagles and the Rattlers.

The second week, the two groups were introduced to each other. Competitive activities were set up like baseball and tug-of-war, with the level of competition gradually increasing. Awards were given to the winning team. The competition escalated from name-calling into burning each other’s flags, vandalizing each other’s property, and getting into physical fights. In a matter of hours, the boys did what we all do by default—they created us vs. them tribes. 

The researchers began to work on ways to break down the divisions between the campers. Fun activities were planned for the two groups to do together—shared meals, watching movies, and pairing up boys from each group to swim, hike, or play ball together. It didn’t work. The minute the boys were back in their groups, they resorted to food fights, name-calling, and brawling with the other side.

Next, the researchers created a number of obstacles that the groups had to work together to solve. The camp’s water supply was shut off, and a truck bringing the campers food wouldn’t start. At first, the groups immediately resorted back to their rivalries as soon as the challenge was resolved. But over time, the continued pursuit of shared goals began to reduce the conflict. Name-calling stopped, meals began to reflect intermingling between groups, and Eagle and Rattler friendships began to emerge. By the end of camp, they all rode the bus back home together, singing and laughing as one group.

There’s compelling research that spending time with the “other side” and engaging in goal-oriented conversations is a critical part of building a more culturally intelligent world. This was an idea first developed by Gordon Allport, something he called “Contact Hypothesis.” Allport offered guidance on how to use solution-focused dialogue to reduce conflict and discrimination:

  • The members from both groups need to have equal status. If one group is treated as subordinate, the interaction makes things worse.
  • There has to be a common goal (such as saving as many lives as possible during a global pandemic!).
  • The members of both groups have to commit to DOING something together. It’s the act of solving something together that begins to change attitudes about one another.
  • Institutional support is needed (e.g., all of this depends on culturally intelligent leadership guiding and supporting the contact between groups).

Each of us can start by applying this social science interpersonally. Think of someone who has a diametrically opposed view about something you both care deeply about. Agree to get together with the goal of seeing if you can accurately understand one another’s perspective and to identify something you can do together to address the issue you both care about. In-person contact is more effective than virtual, but given our current circumstances, virtual still works. 

Use these rules of engagement:

  • Argue like you’re right. Listen like you’re wrong. I first heard Adam Grant say this, and I use it all the time to frame our leadership meetings at the CQ Center.
  • No name-calling or labels. We can do better than that. And it does nothing to move the conversation forward.
  • Avoid media-scripted talking points. Formulate your own point of view. If you never disagree with your trusted media sources, consider whether you’re being duped.
  • See if you can neutrally describe each other’s point of view. No evaluative or judgmental language allowed.
  • Identify a challenge you can work on together.

Next, bring the insights of “contact hypothesis” theory into your professional life. If you’re a teacher, facilitate this kind of goal-oriented dialogue in your classroom. If you’re a manager, use this approach to address work-related differences and then find appropriate ways to get your team engaging in goal-oriented conversations about politics, religion, and social issues.

It’s going to take more than polite conversations to bridge our political divides and tribalism. But the first step toward evolving beyond our tribal camps of us vs. them is spending time with the other tribe. If ever we’ve had a common enemy that doesn’t come from anyone geopolitical place or political tribe, it’s Covid-19. This virus doesn’t care if you’re red, blue, Qatari, Emirati, Arab, or Jew. Our diversity won’t solve this global pandemic. Left to our tribal differences, we’ll continue to act like a group of 12-year-olds fighting over who gets to eat first. But our diverse perspectives, combined with culturally intelligent dialogue and action, can help us move beyond the “cancel culture,” “lockdown or not,” debates to creating solutions we all need.

Many of our appointed leaders across the globe aren’t leading us with cultural intelligence. They’re using this moment to deepen their tribe’s loyalty rather than transcending their in-group perspectives to fight this thing for us. So let’s figure this out on our own. And for those us voting in the coming months, let’s elect individuals who have the cultural intelligence to guide and support difficult, goal-oriented conversations that leverage our differences rather than using them to further destroy us. If a group of 12 year-olds can do it, so can we.

For more information about the book check out this Q+A with Dave below!

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Coronavirus Insight: “I’m More American Than I Thought!”

davidlivermore | May 26th, 2020 No Comments

By David Livermore, PhD

My parents were Canadian. And I’ve spent a great deal of the last thirty years living and traveling across the globe. I’m a US citizen, but I don’t think of myself as a very typical American. And people outside the US often guess that I’m European, Australian, or even Middle Eastern before they peg me as being from the US. But times of crisis bring out the core of who we are. The COVID-19 crisis makes me realize I’m more American than I typically think. I’m not suggesting this is good or bad…It’s just been a time of reckoning to reflect on my reactions in the midst of a crisis. 

Here are a few examples:

1. You can’t tell me what to do!

I’m 100% committed to social distancing and the necessity of restricting travel, movement, and more…but it strikes at the core of my inner locus of control. I’ve found myself internally rebelling against being told that I have to stay home. My autonomy and freedom are important to me, and I want to be able to control what I do, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the right for you to do the same. This is the classic American narrative.

My friends in Singapore often say that their highly regulated, rules-based society is a small price to pay for safety, financial security, and more. I respect their collectivist ideals and often view them with great admiration. But in times like this, I’m reminded that my autonomy is a prized value for me. Tell me that there are choices I can make for the benefit of myself and others, and I’m much more motivated to do social distancing than just telling me to do it because you said so. That’s very American of me.

2. I just want this to be done already! 

Two weeks of no-travel and working from home?! Okay. No big deal. I can do this. But now as two weeks become four, six, and eight, I’m thinking, I’m so over this. When can we get back to normal?

Americans are notoriously short-term oriented. We like quick fixes, and we celebrate quick turn-arounds. Most US publicly traded companies insist on quarterly results. In contrast, companies like Sony and Panasonic make decisions in light of 100 year+ strategic plans and will often suffer losses for what outsiders might perceive as a long period of time because of a long-term orientation. Both mindsets are a critical part of success. But they change how you approach times of crisis.

I’m confident we’re going to get to the other side of this, but there isn’t a quick fix. And I want one.

3. What just happened to all my hard-earned investments?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future—How can we introduce cultural intelligence to 10 million people by 2030? What kind of team will we have at the Cultural Intelligence Center in five years? How can I help my daughters prepare for the future? How should we invest in preparing for the kind of life we anticipate in 15 years?

When the current crisis began hitting the financial markets, I decided I wasn’t even going to look at my investment accounts. I invest for the long-haul, so there’s no need to panic in light of short-term losses. But eventually, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing how bad things were. My long-term vision evaporated. I can’t believe I lost that much money in 4 weeks! I worked so hard for this, and it’s gone.

Many people, Americans included, think about the future. But I’ve often thought of myself as an anomaly from “typical” Americans in that I think about it a lot and plan accordingly. I pride myself on saying that I’m not overly worried about immediate successes, but I might not be as future-oriented as I think.

4. Can we please hear something positive?

I grow impatient with friends and acquaintances who tune out the news because it’s too negative. I’m sorry you can’t handle hearing about the atrocities in Syria because it’s too dark. C’mon already. Are we really that self-centered? But the bombardment of bad news over the last few weeks leaves me longing for something, anything, that’s hopeful.

Americans like a happy ending. Longfellow wrote, “Be still, sad heart!… Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” Ronald Reagan built his re-election campaign by saying, “It’s morning again in America,” an approach that fits well with the American psyche. Contrast that to a more typical German approach, where the norm is to look at the downside of things and to linger in that reality. Goethe wrote, “Let me pass the nights in tears, As long as I want to cry.”

I don’t want to be in denial about the enormous loss of life all across the globe as a result of this pandemic. But like most of my fellow Americans, I’m craving something positive…something, anything!

5. I’m an exception!

The virus is following me. I was in Asia for most of January and February. While I could see the growing devastation unfolding, particularly in Wuhan, I silently wondered if the response elsewhere in Asia was an over-reaction. There were virtually no cases in Singapore, but my temperature was being checked everywhere I went. In Seoul, I walked by a massive department store that was closed indefinitely because a customer had been exposed to the virus. Subconsciously I was thinking, I’ll be fine. There are 7+ billion people in the world, and I’m not going to lose sleep over catching this.

I don’t espouse American exceptionalism. Why can’t we be proud of who we are without having to be the “best nation in the world”? But I’ve been reflecting on how quickly I resort to exceptionalism personally. I dismissed my wife’s concerns that I was going to come home from Asia sick. I didn’t think the realities of Italy and Iran would be happening across our own metropolitan areas. It turns out the virus doesn’t care if you’re Chinese, American, royalty, or homeless. Granted, privilege is amplified by how things like social distancing and exposure to the virus play out. But no one is an exception to getting the virus, Americans included.

The very fact that I think of myself as being “not very typical American” is a very American thing to do. Americans are proud of what makes us stand apart from each other. It’s rooted in our desire for uniqueness. While our nationality is only part of our identity, it has a profound, powerful influence on our underlying values.

During this time of disruption, reflect on how your responses expose your cultural identity:

  • How much sacrifice should healthy individuals be willing to make for the sake of others? (Individualism/Collectivism)
  • Should executives take a steeper pay cut than their staff? If so, should they also be paid more during good times? (Power Distance)
  • Are you inclined to wait and see how this all plays out or proactively take charge of your situation? (Being vs. Doing)
  • How does your view toward receiving economic relief from the government align with your espoused views toward socialism vs. capitalism? (Cooperative vs. Competitive)

Now more than ever, we need to function as a global community. Being global citizens doesn’t have to conflict with our national identities. But we each have to hold the two identities in tension. There’s no turning back from globalization. COVID-19 has made that exceptionally clear. We’re all connected. We have a common enemy, and our only hope is to fight it together.

In the words of Queen Elizabeth last week,

“We join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science, and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed. And that success will belong to every one of us.”

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If you have extra time on your hands during this unprecedented crisis, check out MyCV (My Cultural Values), an online tool that includes a survey and personalized feedback of your cultural value preferences. Or you might want to enroll in MyUB™ (My Unconscious Bias), our online course that explores the fascinating science behind implicit bias and how cultural intelligence helps you manage your bias.

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You Might Be “Mansplaining” If…

davidlivermore | September 16th, 2019 No Comments

David Livermore Interviews Amy Heaton, PhD

Ever since I heard about this idea of mansplaining and its close cousin whitesplaining, I’ve been tripped up by it. Mansplaining is when men feel the need to over-explain something to a woman in a condescending manner. Or it often shows up as paraphrasing what a woman says to others, so they understand what she meant, frequently interrupting the woman so that we men can say it more clearly for the rest of the world to hear… Wait. Did I just mansplain mansplaining? 

I get it. On countless occasions, I’ve watched my male peers needlessly explain what a woman meant as if she isn’t articulate enough on her own. The same thing happens when white people need to explain what a person of color says.

Here’s where I get tripped up. At the core of cultural intelligence is bridging misunderstanding. And a critical part of inclusion is ensuring people understand. So in almost any group conversation, I’m continually scanning the discussion to make sure people know what’s being talked about. If I’m with two friends and one of them starts telling me a story about a friend we both have in common and the other person doesn’t know who they are, I stop to make sure the other friend has a little context. If I hear our staff use insider jargon that I think will confuse someone outside our organization, I suggest different language. 

So now I’m totally paranoid about whether I’m mansplaining. My friend and colleague, Amy Heaton, has a background in Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse. She’s a Ph.D. linguist who has enriched my understanding of this in previous conversations. So I asked her if we could have a “public” discussion about this.

DL: So Amy. Is “mansplaining” a real thing, or is this just some pop psychology term?

It’s very real, and it happens all the time. When a woman pitches an idea, if someone doesn’t quite get it, instead of asking for further explanation, a mansplainer just ignores your contributions. Then somehow, an hour, week, or year later, he miraculously has the same idea, and he’s convinced it’s his own!. He doesn’t realize you’ve been planting seeds all along. So he comes into a meeting and says, “This morning on my exercise bike, I thought to myself, Hey, we can just do X!!!”

We all need to get better at introspection and understanding the provenance of our creative, new ideas. Who helped you get there? That’s the first step in addressing this.

DL: Okay. I can see that. This kind of self-awareness is something we measure in our CQ Assessment. But can you give me a couple of specific examples of when you’ve experienced mansplaining?

The worst was when we were in a meeting of about a dozen folks, and I pitched an idea that a client immediately nay-sayed. This often happens when an interlocutor doesn’t totally get something the first time they hear it — either it’s too complex of an idea or too far from their current knowledge base. “No no no, we’re not doing that. That would never work. No one would do that.” Then he thinks out loud about what he wants to do, goes on talking for about 10-15 minutes, proposes multiple things, answering himself along the way, and finally lands on EXACTLY the approach I pitched 15 minutes earlier. 

The one I love the most is when men talk about ME when I’m present, purporting to know my thoughts, motivations, and intent better than me in professional spaces. e.g., “Oh Amy just thinks that’s a good idea because of that one time X happened.” Or “Amy is just saying that because she was trained in X and all those people think Y.”

Here’s one more for you. When a client or boss asks you to come in and brief them on your work, but then never lets you get a word in. This happens to me all the time. “Ok, Amy. So what’s going on with X?” I respond with one phrase like, “Well, the project is nearing the end of the Period of Performance, and one of my concerns is that we are not getting the data we originally….” BOOM! I’m interrupted before I even finish one sentence and he continues talking about his ideas and thoughts the entire hour, re-hashing the same things he has been saying, (down to exact examples and phrases) for the last five years instead of ever going back to ask the opinion of the one expert in the room.

DL: I’m annoyed on your behalf just hearing these stories. But how is this a gender thing? Just the other day, someone 20 years younger than me started lecturing me on something I already know a lot about. 

I’m so glad you asked this! People think that mansplaining has to be a conscious manipulation, but it’s not at all – in fact, research shows women interrupt other women twice as much as we interrupt men.

So here’s the key. Whenever we see people from a non-dominant group also contributing to the very oppression of their own group, we know there is a society-wide problem. We have mounting evidence that women are still marginalized in all conversations and discussions in the workplace. Thanks to the work of Jennifer Coates, we have the “androcentric rule,” which basically states that the linguistic behavior of men is seen as the norm. By and large, when women speak as often as men or interrupt as much as men, they are perceived as speaking too much, being too aggressive and bossy. 

Recent analysis of 155,000 corporate conference calls showed men speak a whopping 92% of the time! 

We’ve all been interrupted by an annoying know-it-all. But what makes it mansplaining is the cultural and societal background in which the conversation occurs. It kind of reminds me of the other question we both often get: “How come it’s not considered racist when a Person of Color does something to slight me?’ Oh BOY! We know that both racism and gender norms have critical structural power imbalances that we simply can’t ignore. The fact that men speak so much more than women in general in the workplace sets the stage for anything less than actively changing discourse norms to make more room for women’s voices or ideas to be mansplaining. 

DL: That’s extremely helpful. And it’s a good reminder that this is never solely about the words themselves. It’s the meaning associated with them based on the context, the communicators, and so much more.

So help me out here. I might be mansplaining (or whitesplaining) if….

  • You speak on topics where you are not the known expert in the room. You’re particularly susceptible to this if you are the person of the highest status in the room.
  • You’re interrupting, talking over, or nay-saying a female or person from another marginalized group rather than allowing them to finish their thoughts.
  • Overall, you talk far more than your colleagues from other backgrounds.
  • You are summarizing other peoples’ words or ideas for them without allowing them to do so themselves or asking for clarifications to ensure you’ve adequately captured their thoughts.
  • You co-opt ideas of marginalized speakers and fail to give credit where credit is due.

DL: Those are precisely the kinds of cues to help us differentiate whether we’re offering a useful explanation (e.g., explaining insider jargon to an outsider) or whether we’re mansplaining. Thank you!

Finally, what are a few practical strategies to overcome mansplaining?

There’s no need to get overwhelmed or discouraged by this since there are so many clear ways we can each fix this! Here’s a start:

  1. Practice active listening. When someone else is speaking, stop planning what you want to say next. If you’re afraid you’ll lose your train of thought, make notes you can refer to later.

  2. Stop interrupting others when they are speaking. Let people finish their thoughts completely without assuming you know where their statement is heading.

  3. Don’t ever assume you’re the smartest person in the room. Try to learn from others around you and be aware of your status both in the room and in society at large.

  4. Use your power to hold space for others whose voices need amplifying. Ask yourself if you are contributing to the conversation because you have something ONLY YOU know or if someone else in the room might know more than you on the given topic. Provide agreement and ask for clarification of others’ ideas instead of summarizing or essentializing for them.

DL: Thank you, Amy! What a great application of cultural intelligence. You not only expanded our awareness but offered us practical strategies to address this.

Are All White People Privileged?

davidlivermore | June 13th, 2019 No Comments

You can’t have an honest conversation about cultural intelligence (CQ) without addressing white privilege,  the idea that white people inherit certain privileges simply by the color of their skin.

But privilege is not an easy topic of conversation. People on all sides of the issue quickly become emotional and defensive. People of color are fatigued by having to prove the point to white colleagues while many white people feel anything but privileged and experience what Robin DiAngelo refers to as white fragility.

Are all white people privileged? It depends on how you define privilege. You knew you would get that kind of response from me, right? But hear me out.

Imagine you grew up in a very poor, white family. One reason J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Ellegy resonated with so many people was that he offered insight on what it means to grow up poor and white. His family struggled with poverty, domestic violence, moving from place to place, and navigating the welfare system. His ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy and eventually, coal miners, machinists, and mill workers. They’re referred to as hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash by the dominant culture. To be clear, that’s not the same as a history characterized by being forced to the U.S. as slaves, but it’s a perspective worth considering.

Even most middle class, white people don’t easily embrace the idea that they’re privileged. It’s not like someone knocked on their door and handed them their college degree, job, or home. And yet what are the invisible benefits they experience day-to-day that stem from a long history of privilege?

A 1,200-word article won’t do justice to such a complex and highly sensitive topic. But here are a few guiding principles for making the conversation about privilege more productive.

1. White privilege is real.

It’s impossible to deny that being born with white skin affords certain unearned privileges. White privilege is knowing I can walk into a restaurant, use the bathroom, and leave without buying anything, and it’s unlikely that anyone will say anything to me about it. It’s knowing I can go to the front door of my house and not have someone ask me if the homeowner is around. It’s the confidence that I can turn on the TV and see people who look like me. I not only experience the benefits of white privilege in the U.S., I encounter it almost everywhere in the world.

It’s not that you’re privileged if you’re white. It’s that being white is a privilege. A white kid growing up in a poor trailer park living next door to a black kid growing up in the same environment has fewer barriers to worry about than the black kid does. But I’m not suggesting that’s the approach to take with struggling white families. Read on.

2. Privilege exists on a spectrum.

Who is more privileged? A white single mom living on welfare or a black, married man with a professional job? It depends! Both have some privileges the other doesn’t have. Ethnicity and skin color are an essential part of the discussion about privilege, but our understanding of privilege must be broader to include other dimensions of identity. Kimberly Crenshaw’s notion of Intersectionality allows us to see that people can be privileged in some ways and not in others. Skin color is one of the most significant variables of privilege, but there are many others. “Privilege” is anything you are born into, not things you earned. Your privilege often has a direct impact on the opportunities you get.

Consider how you would score on the spectrum of privilege in light of these indicators. A person born with most of these identity traits has the most power in most contexts:

  • Citizenship: Born in a stable, developed country
  • Social Class: Born into a financially, stable family and zip code
  • Skin Color: Born white
  • Sexual Orientation: Born straight
  • Sex: Born male
  • Ability: Born able-bodied/minded
  • Gender: Born cis-gendered

This is by no means an exhaustive list. And I’m not suggesting we should start tallying privilege points. But our discussions about privilege desperately need a more nuanced approach that acknowledges numerous factors that influence privilege. It’s reductive and insulting to reduce any individual to a single story. Privilege exists on a wide spectrum.

3. Don’t dismiss someone’s struggle.

Last week my daughter Grace was in a serious cycling accident. It took an emergency rescue team five hours to get her to the hospital, followed by a lengthy surgery overseas. She’s now on a long road to recovery.  All indicators suggest she will fully recover. The same day of her accident, another girl her age fell in the same forest, broke her back, and will probably never walk again. When my daughter was lying in agony, I didn’t say, “Well, at least you’re not like this other girl who will never walk.” Minimizing someone’s pain and struggle by telling them someone else has it worse is not only ineffective; it lacks compassion and empathy.

In a similar way, screaming that your privileged to someone who grew up in a trailer park with a single parent is tone deaf. Only in very specific circumstances would any reasonable person ask a white person in abject poverty to consider their white privilege. My daughter herself later reflected on how fortunate she is that her accident was not worse. But in an attempt to build awareness and foster perspective-taking, we should always avoid dismissing the reality of someone’s struggle and unique story.

4. Dialogue and reflection work better than debate.

It’s inarguable that white males have privileges others don’t have. But it’s the spectrum of privilege that is most helpful to consider. Debates about who has more privilege put people on the defensive. 30 percent of people feel like you’ve lost your mind when you tell them that their benefits are things that were handed to them. Rather than arguing with someone about whether they’re privileged, structure conversations to move toward reflection about the gradient of advantage they may have had as compared to if they had been born differently. For example,

  • How would your life be different if you had been born a different gender?
  • What about with a different skin color?
  • How would your reality change if you had been born in Sudan?

The point is not to say, “Hey—every aspect of your life is privileged.” That is not true for most people. But we want to get everyone to start thinking about it. The ask for white people is this: Consider the fact that because you are white, there are certain aspects of the world you don’t have to worry about.

5. CQ your messaging about privilege.

Finally, we need to apply cultural intelligence to how we talk about privilege. It’s ridiculous to suggest that white privilege is the same for all white people in the world. It’s equally ludicrous to deny that a white person has certain things they just don’t have to worry about.

Don’t say, “You’re privileged!”. Instead say, “You have access to privilege.”

We need to find the zone of productive disequilibrium where we allow enough discomfort to foster productive reflection and change but not so much that people shut down and feel defensive.

I didn’t choose to be a straight, white, able-bodied male. But I’m ignorant if I don’t acknowledge that I hit the lottery on the privilege spectrum. To be honest, I was leery of writing this article. Who am I to be pontificating about privilege? Our own team at the Cultural Intelligence Center has rigorous discussions about what we all need to consider about this personally as well as in light of our work. My privilege blinds me from certain aspects of this conversation. But the enormous privilege I have makes me all the more committed to engage in meaningful dialogue with others about these realities and to strive toward making the world a more inclusive, equitable place for everyone. I welcome your perspective on this complicated topic.

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EQ Does Not Equal CQ

davidlivermore | September 13th, 2018 No Comments

My wife and I just dropped off our youngest daughter to start university. To say I was sad to leave Grace thousands of miles away is an understatement. Sure, I’m happy for her to spread her wings and start this new chapter but she and I have always been close and I’m not ready to let her go.

When it came to the dreaded moment of saying goodbye, I worked hard to apply the recurring advice I received from countless friends. “Dave. Hold it together. Nobody wants to see their parents cry and particularly not their dad.”

I watched these farewells play out all weekend as other parents were going through the same ritual. A lot of moms were crying, not many dads, and few if any students. Similar differences played out across different ethnic groups, with affective cultures doing little to disguise their tears and neutral ones looking stoic. Grace knows me too well to not have seen through my artificial smile and wavering voice but I kept a stiff upper lip as I gave her a final hug and watched her walk away.

Emotions play a powerful part in every relationship—first and foremost among our family but also among our friends and colleagues. This is why our social media feeds are filled with articles about things like: “7 secrets to deal with toxic behavior”,”4 ways to project more confidence”, or “5 ways to handle a friend who gives you the silent treatment.” And almost without fail, these articles seem to assume we’re all Westerners interacting with other Westerners. We’re repeatedly told to look people in the eye, speak up for yourself, smile while you speak, and similar platitudes. But many of these tips will get you in trouble if blindly applied to colleagues and friends in a diverse and global world.

Direct eye contact means confidence and respect in some cultures.
Direct eye contact means insubordination and disrespect in other cultures.

Speaking up demonstrates confidence and control in the U.S.
Silence demonstrates confidence and control in China.

A dad crying in front of his daughter communicates weakness in some cultures.
A dad crying in front of his daughter communicates love in other cultures.

So what do we do? “Common sense” isn’t enough but we can’t possibly learn the dos and don’ts for every culture we encounter. Even if we could, those generalizations are often wrong.

Here are a few starting points for handling the emotional side of our day-to-day interactions:

1. Emotional Intelligence is the first step.
Emotional intelligence, the ability to detect and manage the emotions of yourself and others, is proven to play a critical role in being a strong leader, fostering team collaboration, and forging healthy family relationships. But the challenge comes when you detect and respond to the emotional expressiveness from someone who grew up with a different set of guidelines for what’s appropriate when and with whom. That said, I have little confidence you can be culturally intelligent if you aren’t first able to read and react to the emotions of people from familiar cultures. And cultural intelligence is built from a premise of self-awareness, a critical part of emotional intelligence.

2. Emotions are universal.
We often stereotype certain genders, ethnicities, and even functions and professions as being the “emotional” types. But if you’re human, you’re emotional. There is a set of universal triggers that elicit the same emotion in nearly all of us. For example, the sight of something coming straight at you triggers fear, regardless of your personality or culture. A similar trigger occurs when experiencing the unexpected, such as rough turbulence in flight. Even seasoned flight attendants admit that when they don’t expect it, a sudden jolt in the air frightens them. In a world of robots and AI, it’s worth coming back to one of the most important elements that connects us as humans—our emotions. There are important norms worth learning for various situations and cultures that guide how much we should unveil our emotions. But we need to free ourselves and others from thinking some people are emotional and others aren’t.

3. We all make the same faces.
Paul Ekman’s groundbreaking work on facial expressions finds that people from all over the world express sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and happiness using similar facial expressions. I was initially skeptical of this finding. But 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. And Ekman found that indigenous tribes without exposure to outside groups used some of the same basic facial expressions as others around the world.

4. We disguise our emotions differently.
Where cultural differences begin to come into play are the rules for how to appropriately manage emotional expressions. Parents teach children the 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? We develop mechanisms for masking seemingly inappropriate expressions and learn when we should fake it. Even though a highly trained expert can spot disgust or sadness across faces from a variety of cultures, most of us miss it when an individual disguises their emotions with a behavior they’ve learned to do so.

5. We feel differently about the past.
I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t spend too much time thinking about regrets and in times of disappointment, part of my coping mechanism is to focus on the positive. Some of that is personality driven, but it’s also a reflection of culture.

A series of studies comparing German’s and American’s sense of time illuminated the role of culture in how people view the past, present, and future. Germans are more likely to look at the negative implications of past events while Americans are more likely to focus on the positive.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong, described cancer as the best thing that ever happened to him, whereas German actor Michael Lesch described cancer as a horrifying experience that continued to create a never ending sense of anxiety for him. This aligns with recurring sentiments found among many Americans and Germans at work. U.S. employees typically resist talking about their failures and indirectly refer to them as areas for improvement. Germans view that approach as rubbish and talk openly about failure and spend little time praising one another for their achievements.

CQ picks up where EQ leaves off.
Cultural intelligence stems from the same body of research as emotional intelligence (EQ). There’s no substitute for emotional intelligence as the first step in improving the way you work and relate with others. But cultural intelligence takes it the next step by allowing us to have those same social sensibilities when interacting with people who behave 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. Public affirmations may be encouraging in one context and humiliating in another.

There’s certainly value in using some of the tips and pointers from various articles about how to project confidence, get better at small talk, or manage conflict. Just read them with a culturally intelligent eye and consider which tips need to be adapted for various groups.

Is 2017 Done Yet? Brace yourself…there’s more to come!

davidlivermore | December 14th, 2017 No Comments

What a year! From Brexit battles and alt right groups to countless women (and men!) saying #MeToo, not to mention an alarming number of terrorist attacks in mosques, churches, cafes and rock concerts…it’s been quite a year. Even for an eternal optimist like me, there are days when it’s hard to remain hopeful. Even so, our team at the Cultural Intelligence Center has never been more committed to our work of building bridges across cultural divides than we are now.

I believe we’re in the midst of a massive global disruption. More people than ever before are working, studying, and living next to people who come from vastly different backgrounds than they do. This is true across the U.S., Canada, and Europe—but it’s also occurring throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and almost everywhere else. I’m confident that the extremists, haters, and abusers are not the majority. But the fear people feel about seeing their communities, work places, and worship gatherings change so dramatically creates a lot of anxiety. A few trite clichés about everyone getting along and celebrating diversity are not going to solve this. But, I’d like to suggest that those of us working together to develop cultural intelligence are uniquely positioned to help others navigate the complexities of today’s world.

Our team at the Cultural Intelligence Center recently pushed “pause” and looked back at some of the highlights from this past year. Here are just a few:

  • Figuring out how to implement unconscious bias and CQ solutions in large multinationals like StarbucksGoldman SachsiRobotAmway, and Fiat Chrysler, to working alongside county governments, small consulting firms, and charitable organizations in a variety of places across the globe. We’ve delivered over 100 workshops on cultural intelligence and unconscious bias.
  • Supporting hundreds of universities and high schools across the globe in assessing and equipping their students to develop the skills to live and work in today’s diverse, multicultural world. In some cases, that means working with an individual class or study abroad group; in other cases, it means working with the administration to conduct a complete audit of their strategy for building CQ and creating an inclusive environment. In cases like the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan, it means every incoming student was introduced to CQ as a part of the school’s commitment to “cultural intelligence” as one of its core values. More than 83,000 individuals from 164 countries have taken the CQ Assessment.
  • We’ve had the delight to work with pharmaceutical companies, research institutes, and hospitals like Spectrum Health in Michigan and Sidra Medicine in Qatar to integrate cultural intelligence as a critical part of providing world class care to families and patients from a diversity of backgrounds.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense made it possible for us to launch a military-specific version of the CQ assessment. And we’ve been privileged to work with special operation groups and military leaders in a variety of contexts across the world.
  • 243 people went through our public certification programs so that they can build cultural intelligence and unconscious bias training and coaching into their work. Additionally, 11 organizations sponsored in-house certifications to equip an internal cadre of facilitators to integrate CQ.
  • Meanwhile, we opened a new office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, added 10 new staff and 14 new associate trainers.

We have big dreams for the next year and even bigger dreams for the next 5 years. This isn’t about us. It’s about partnering with likeminded researchers, practitioners, and organizations to respond to the tribalism or our age and to navigate through the social disruption going on domestically and internationally.

Thank you to the thousands of individuals and organizations that are committed to this work with us. We look forward to introducing you to a number of new products and services in the new year but for now, we wish you the happiest of new year’s! There are more challenges on the horizon but together, we can do this!

Charlottesville, Google, and why some need CQ more than others

davidlivermore | August 18th, 2017 No Comments

From the Google engineer who attributed inequality in tech to gender differences to the U.S president’s soft response on white supremacy groups, our commitment to the work we’ve been called to do has never been stronger. Cultural intelligence, or CQ, is most often lauded for its academic rigor and the emphasis on developing skills for working effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. But at its core, cultural intelligence is a deeply human pursuit. It’s about how the 7 billion of us get along together.

WHO NEEDS CQ?

 

  • Families need CQ
    Anthropologist Oscar Lewis says children form their basic values by the time they’re six or seven. CQ begins at home. Conversations about people who look, think, and behave differently begin on the playground and over the dinner table.
  • Peers need CQ
    Our friends are the ones with whom we’re most unfiltered. And for many of us, the opinions of our friends matter more to us than anyone else. Most of us don’t know a single person who would be caught anywhere near a KKK rally. But comments about “those people” or the questions about “safety” when seeing certain groups need to be addressed. Don’t be a bystander. Speak up when discrimination and bias rears its ugly head.
  • Schools need CQ
    School is one of the first places many individuals enter a more diverse world. Some of our partnering universities in the U.S. tell us they have incoming students who never had a conversation with a person of color before they arrived on campus. Yet as students begin to be bombarded with messages about privilege and bias, these programs can further marginalize underrepresented students and embolden white students to feel like they’re the ones experiencing discrimination. A strategic approach for building a culturally intelligent campus is essential.
  • Workplaces need CQ
    Companies have cultures of their own that dictate what kind of behaviors are deemed appropriate and acceptable in the workplace. Many of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Effective training programs are an important part of this but the bigger need is creating an overall environment where meaningful conversations can take place about how to understand and effectively use differences in the workplace. Don’t roll out an unconscious bias program or diversity initiative too quickly. If not done well, these programs backfire and perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce biases.


WE ALL NEED CQ. BUT SOME NEED CQ MORE THAN OTHERS!

  • Leaders
    The words, actions, and decisions of leaders carry more weight than others’. What Trump, Netanyahu, and Larry Page say in these moments of truth matters more than what the average person says. Leaders play a critical role in responding with clarity, vision, and compassion for all. These aren’t the times to defend yourself or protect your personal image. It’s about owning the weight of leadership and calling people to something more transcendent than nationalism or the bottom line. The CQ needed in how you use 140 characters is directly tied to the scope of influence you have.
  • Dominant Group
    Language is never neutral. Two people saying the exact same thing carries very different meaning. A Muslim comedian making fun of white guys or an African American mocking the way white people dance is not the same as me making jokes about Arabs or people of color. What’s up with that? Our words happen within a long history of inequality and oppression. Therefore, the dominant group needs to weigh the impact of our actions and words more carefully. In reality, most underrepresented groups feel like the greatest onus of responsibility for CQ is on them. Everyone needs CQ but dominant groups need it more.


NO ONE IS BORN HATING

Despite the heartache that can come from watching the news, I’m incredibly hopeful. The most “loved” tweet of ALL times was the Mandala quote posted by Barack Obama last week. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”

Hate crimes and racism live on all across the planet, but that’s not the trajectory of the people I encounter across the globe. The incoming MBA students I met at University of Michigan last week voiced their desire to be culturally intelligent leaders of the future. The executives I was with at Goldman Sachs earlier this summer talked at length with me about how they can promote cultural intelligence across all levels of the firm. The special forces officers I talked with a few weeks ago owned the very real struggles they have to view certain groups with dignity and respect.

Who needs CQ? I do. And so do you. So let’s get to work.

Wait, What? What Smart Phones do to our CQ

davidlivermore | April 13th, 2017 No Comments

Wait, What? What Smart Phones do to our CQ

Part of this article came together for me in the shower. Why is it that ideas so often come to us while doing mundane tasks? It’s because moments of boredom free up our mind to think creatively. And regular bouts of boredom play a powerful role in building cultural intelligence (CQ).

Yet who has time to be bored these days? As I travel across the U.S. and around the world rarely, if ever, do I see people who are bored. Thank you smart phones!

You can fast forward through the boring commercials watching your favorite show, pass the time waiting in line by scrolling through your social media feed, or sit through a religious service or class by surfing the web and texting. I’ve even seen security personnel and traffic cops using their phones to alleviate boredom. I recently stayed at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur where a VIP was staying. Security was everywhere. Yet several of the security officers were leaning against the wall scrolling through their phones every time I walked by them.

Our smart phones are an insurance policy against ever being bored. And granted, not everyone across the world has a smart phone. I still catch glimpses of elderly people in certain communities who are simply sitting outside doing “nothing.” But the reality is, most of us reach for our phones whenever there’s a minute to spare.

Boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation. Researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman conducted a study where a group of participants were asked to come up with creative ideas for how to use a pair of plastic cups. Prior to the brainstorming session, one group of participants was asked to copy numbers from a phone book while a control group was not given the boring task. The group who slogged through the phone book assignment came up with more creative ways to use the plastic cups than the others.

What our brains want is new input—fresh, stimulating, and social. But our smart phones spare us the hard work to get that new input and thereby lessen our creative insights. Creativity and cultural intelligence are directly linked. Accomplishing the same task with a group of individuals who have a different set of cultural values requires a creative, culturally intelligent approach, something described in our most recent book Driven by Difference.

But there are a few other seminal issues we need to consider when pondering the relationship between boredom, smart phones, and CQ.

  • Sense of Self

Without boredom, we’re less likely to think about our inner lives. The very starting point of cultural intelligence is awareness of one’s own background, implicit biases, and cultural identity. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost social scientists studying the impact of technology, describes her observation from doing extensive research on how adolescents and young adults relate to their smart phones.  Most of the students she interviewed see their phones as an extension of themselves. They describe a sense of panic when their phone is dying and they don’t have a way to charge it. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Turkle writes,

I see how happy these students are [with their phones]. They like moving in and out of talk, text, and images; they like the continual feed. And they like always having someplace else to go. They say that their greatest fear is boredom. If for a moment students don’t find enough stimulation in the room, they go to the chat. If they don’t find the images compelling, they look for new ones.” (p. 10)

But don’t be too quick to pin this all on the younger generation. The average U.S. adult checks their phone every 6.5 minutes. There’s little need to pay attention to what’s going on within you when the world is at your fingertips.

  • Perspective Taking

Allowing for boredom increases the capacity for empathy and perspective taking. Perspective taking is the capability to step outside ourselves and imagine the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another. It goes beyond the platonic admonitions of cultural sensitivity programs that teach “respect for everyone.” Instead, perspective taking steps into the shoes of others and realizes they may not want to be treated the same way I do. Sitting on a bus in a new place and watching the people around me offers me all kinds of insights I miss when my head is buried in my phone.

There’s mounting research that reports a 40% drop in empathy among college students in the past 20 years, as measured by standard psychological tests. Social scientists suggest this drop in empathy correlates with the spike in online, mediated communication by both students and the parents who raised them. Many kids are growing up in homes where parents don’t get through dinner without stopping to read and respond to text messages.

It’s tough to enter the shoes of another person when you’re phubbing—the skill of maintaining eye contact while texting. It’s difficult to understand your colleague’s point on a global call when you’re simultaneously emailing while “listening” to them. It’s difficult to fully engage with an unfamiliar culture when you’re still fully immersed in the world of email and social media updates from home. Boredom allows you to look around and observe details and nuances you miss when multi-tasking as you engage with others. And this leads to one more critical issue.

  • Face-to-Face Conversations, “Wait, What?”

Teens and 20-somethings told Turkle that the most commonly heard phrase at dinner with friends is “Wait, What?” And this is happening as much among 30 and 40-somethings as it is among teenagers. More and more conversations are extremely fragmented because everyone is in and out of the conversation at hand. Everyone is always missing a beat because of being available to everyone else who isn’t physically together.

The beauty of smart phones is the way they allow us to retain connection and relationship with people who are far away from us. It’s what our phones do to our in-person conversations that is a problem. Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on a table (even turned off) changes how people talk. If two people are talking and there’s a phone sitting on the table, each feels less connected to the other.

Being constantly available to everyone else means I’m only partially available to the people in my presence.  And cultural intelligence is best developed face-to-face, one conversation at a time.

  • You’re in Charge, not Your Phone

Rest easy. I’m not interested in launching a campaign to ditch smart phones…as if that would have any success even in my own household. But it’s time we consider more seriously the ubiquitous ways our phones are changing our lives, relationships, and ways of engaging with one another.

The ability to text my college age daughter from across the world makes me feel closer to her. And the fact that I can easily contact my aging mother, wherever I am in the world, is a gift I treasure. But we need to get serious about taking charge of our phones and putting them down to engage in real, face-to-face conversation, force ourselves to sit on a bus with nothing to do, and know when to fully unplug.

I just read an interview with Barbara Corcoran, Shark Tank’s real estate guru who said, “When I get home at night, I focus 100 percent on my family. There’s dinner, the usual homework, bedtime routines….but at night I don’t check emails or answer the phone. I plug the phone into the charger at the front door, and the next morning I grab it as I walk out the door. I realized a while back that the constant flow of emailing and texting was my personal enemy and I declared war.”

Wait, what? You can do that??

Hang on, I just got a text….

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.

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