Putting down our anvils: Mindful communication as pathway to cultural sensitivity & inclusion

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There are four common barriers to competent cross-cultural communication.

  1. Making decisions based on faulty assumptions
  2. Fear and ego
  3. Deep-seated biases and prejudice
  4. Miscommunication or misunderstanding

Experiencing racism and prejudice

Since age 10, I have lived in rural Arkansas. In case you’re unaware, let me fill you in on a secret about the rural South. In general, you’ll find racism and biases flourishing, with deep roots dug in. It’s thick down here.

Circa 1989 with my sisters, right before we moved to Arkansas

As a child, adolescent, and college student, I experienced a bit of this myself. You can’t have the last name Klonowski and totally avoid being the brunt of racist jokes and cutting remarks. After a discussion about World War II and Nazi hate crimes in history class, my teacher asked us if we believed Polish people and Jews were truly stupid, backward, or incompetent human beings.

“Of course not!” I piped up. “I’m Polish, and I have all A’s. And Marie Curie was Polish, and she’s one of the most infamous scientists ever.”

My teacher agreed with me and kept on with the lesson. But that provided heavy ammunition for some of my peers. Looking back, I know the only kids who mocked me were probably raised by very racist, insensitive parents or caregivers. But at the time, I did not understand the cyclical nature of racism and prejudice. I just knew that kids who’d never said a cruel word to me before suddenly seemed out to get me.

That’s just one mild example. Even though I endured some bullying and mockery in middle school, it died out eventually because there were more obvious targets. Hispanic immigrants. Blacks. Asians. Even some of my own family members made racist jokes; I balked, argued with them, and/or refused to remain in the room when they bantered this way. I didn’t change them–I just refused to allow racism to infect me.

Maybe I’m an unlikely candidate to have found a niche leading training and coaching on diversity, equality, and inclusion in the workplace. But here I am–because this matters. It matters to me.

Thankfully, I possessed certain soft skills which removed barriers to competent cross-cultural communication. And I grew determined to help others overcome barriers, too.

The key to removing barriers

When I lead training sessions on mindful communication as a pathway to cultural sensitivity and inclusion, I notice shocked and frustrated expressions on participants’ faces when I share an unfortunate but completely valid truth on this topic. Here it is:

If you’re not open-minded or willing, you will not change or grow.

Bethany Wallace

Read it again.

Unless someone is willing and open-minded BEFORE training or coaching begins, there is no way I can affect change in that individual, no matter how many coaching or training sessions we complete.

Isn’t that disheartening?

But it’s true.

The top three common barriers to competent cross-cultural communication (fear/ego, decisions based on faulty assumptions, and biases/prejudice) are insurmountable in the absence of open-mindedness, teachability, and willingness to learn and try new ways of thinking and doing. Flexibility. Agility.

All of these “unlesses” are soft skills. Soft skills are interpersonal skills which are a combination of talent and ability. While some of us are certainly naturally more open-minded than others, the good news is ANYONE can become more open-minded, more teachable, and more flexible over time with proper coaching or training.

Do you have lots of employees who seem unwilling to change or grow, close-minded, and inflexible?

Don’t shove more DEI training at them. Start with soft skills training instead, specifically focused on open-mindedness, willingness, flexibility, and agility.

Here’s more good news: the fourth barrier on the list is miscommunication/misunderstanding. Guess what? ANYONE can improve communication skills rather easily. It’s simply a matter of gaining awareness of pitfalls, learning about competent communication, then applying principles of competent communication.

And THAT is why I focus on communication when conducting DEI training or coaching.

Taking action

Want to start improving your own cross-cultural communication skills? Try implementing these five practices.

If you need greater assistance or want to discuss how to help your employees grow, reach out to me for help.

  • THINK before speaking: Ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary, or Kind?” If it doesn’t meet these criteria, you shouldn’t say it (or you should modify HOW you say it).
  • Learn about active listening and practice it–regularly.
  • Listen more than you speak, especially when getting to know someone. You’re much less likely to come across as egotistical or uncaring.
  • Get rich: Channel rich communication is the way to go. This means avoiding “text-only” means of communication.
  • Focus on humanity. Tell your stories. Listen to the stories of others. Get to know people as PEOPLE rather than profiling them before you interact.

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