August 2, 2021

Better Conversations, Smarter Questions, and More Listening Part 1

Following the news today is next to impossible. Every day COVID-19 rules and policies are changing. We are bombarded with political, societal, ecological, and economical challenges of global proportions and it is hard to wrap our minds around them!

Some of us try hard to dive deep into the issues and even hit the streets and social media to make it our cause. Others have a ‘whatever’ mentality or stop following the news altogether.

By and large, the world is tired and frazzled by COVID-19 and the 10–15% global drop in GDP it has caused. The current global crisis has made us scared, angry, more selfish, frustrated, insecure, suspicious, tired… and this does something to us at a fundamental level as human beings: We create distance between us!

No matter if we are busy rallying for a cause or retreating in our caves, I have noticed a trend that seriously worries me: “Our ability to have life-giving conversations with one another, especially if they are conversations across a variety of differences and diversities, is eroding at an alarming speed”!

As a strategic interculturalist supporting work in close to 70 countries, I want to take a global and intercultural perspective and want to challenge you to zoom out for a few minutes! Take some time to reflect and challenge yourself! The following four Questions influence how we engage the world around us. How are you doing?

1. What is my relationship with (social) media and journalism?

2. Are my conversations life-giving and bridge building?

3. Am I mindful about the stories I believe and tell?

4. Is my behavior ‘cultural learner’ or ‘cultural critic’ oriented?

1) What is my relationship with (social) media and journalism?

Finding media that is based on good investigative journalism has become a search for “a needle in the media haystack”.

Media is addicted to viewership, clicks and likes; enslaved to advertisement revenue or ideological funding. As a result, most of the news out there is driven by sensationalism, click bait oriented headlines, purposefully single sided arguments, first to press no matter what and pushing out badly researched notions and hunches.

While the media is sliding down the slippery slope of sensationalism, a dangerous disease has proliferated in our world: Our opinions become more and more a collection of unbalanced single stories, based on a shaky foundation of (perceived) facts. We are too tired and ill-equipped to sift through what is presented to us as news, to create a “balance of stories”. And since we cannot trust the media, how in the world will I know what information was based on good journalism and what was not?

BUT: our brains are still functioning the same way. The brain was wired for answers (exclamation marks), not for lingering questions. Combine that with our super short attention span and we run the risk of becoming easy prey to the opinion makers and shapers that reach our ears and eyes. If we fall prey to simple conclusions and interpretations, the brain will take the next step with that opinion: it will attach an emotion to that opinion! Over time the brain is not triggered anymore by the conclusion we drew, but by the emotion associated with it. So, we start to defend the emotions associated with the conclusion, which diminishes our willingness to consider other ways of looking at things.

On top of that we have created societies that believe it to be inappropriate to be in relationship with somebody who has a different opinion from me… The result of this is: our societies become more and more polarized, we pull apart and only ‘hang out’ with people who think like us!

We have fallen in love with our own thinking, we believe our own opinions, our perspective has become more important than our hard-wired craving for relationship. Is it any wonder that our generation is one of the loneliest generations in recent history!

Did you know that the most effective action you can take to overcome depression is: talk to a stranger! If the best antidote to depression is talking to strangers, it tells us something about our deep need for making connections: Our spirits are lifted, we come alive, we feel human when we connect, even if it is with a stranger!

BUT: Talking to strangers typically involves the risk of meeting people that do not think like us! In our day and age, we have created a world where talking to strangers is seen as dangerous (physically, medically, socially). Our polarized world makes us think twice about “being seen talking to people who are not like me/us.’ We are taking social distancing to a whole new level!

The more we polarize, the more our affiliation with subgroups in society results in those subgroups dictating our thinking and acting. And to compound the impact of that, the group will also demand more and more control over dictating how we think about ‘the others’ and will discourage us from connecting with them!

In Dutch there is a saying: “Unknown makes unloved…” The global forces at play right now seem to turn a lot of people into ‘unknown entities’, people, societal groups or countries that we have strong (emotive) opinions about – opinions based on ill-informed single stories.

I believe we can turn the tide, and it starts with me! It starts with me making some fundamental changes to the way I engage with difference and diversity!

One of the things we need to do at the individual level is: Recognize that we live in an interdependent world! We cannot live on our streets, in our neighborhoods, cities, countries and our planet without recognizing that our world and our societies are interdependent. If we pretend this reality is undesirable or worse – does not exist, then we will fill our near future with numerous disasters! Our global interdependence is everywhere. I am not just talking about economic interdependence, but also ecological, cultural, social, logistical, educational etc.

Ignoring the realities of our interdependent world has already resulted in global scale ecological and economic consequences. If we do not turn the tide, we might see global conflict and major ‘me first’ initiated disasters we prayed would never happen in our lifetime.

We used to talk about “problems to solve”, then we started to talk about “challenges to overcome”. But now we live in a world where we have to face the hard reality that many of our problems and challenges are actually dilemmas that will never go away: they are “dilemmas to manage”, and it requires all of us to work together!

To do that well, we need the abilities and competencies to work together! One of those essential collaborative competencies is “Inter-Cultural Intelligence”!

2) Having life-giving and bridge building conversations

To develop Inter-Cultural Intelligence, we need to have the mindset of a cultural learner! Truly listening to and collaborating with one another at a global level is not going to happen if we have a Cultural Critic mentality!

How do we learn to have better conversations? What does it take to keep conversations going with people who do not think like us? And how do we stay in relationship with people even if their opinions are very different from ours?

The feedback we receive from all over the world is that the biggest reason for conversational breakdown is the following: We mix up articulating the facts (intel we gather with our senses, whatever research we were able to conduct) with the conclusion we draw or the interpretation we make. We think/feel/say things like: “He said he didn’t like my ideas without hearing me out. He said it with a tone in his voice that indicated he will never change his mind. If this is how he acts I don’t want to work with him!” If the above observations, thought, conclusion and associated feelings all happen ‘in one shot’, it results in a breakdown of communication and if not corrected, a breakdown in relationship! This level of conversational intelligence is not helpful no matter what conversation you are in. BUT, it is especially destructive in an intercultural conversation!

The reality is that communication in intercultural environments is more challenging! Our cultural wiring has a huge influence on how we process life, draw conclusions and how we act on those conclusions. Below is an (incomplete) list with some of the things we do different across cultures:

• handling group dynamics

• how we think about the process of voicing our opinion

• whose voice is important

• are words just tools or are they an accurate representation of our thinking or opinions?

• how much we value one-on-one or group dialogue or both

• navigating difference of opinion or conflict

• who has the right to influence my opinion?

• Is consensus a must-have, or not that important?

Let me introduce you to one of the tools we use to equip people to have more constructive conversations: The D.I.R! It helps us get back to one of the basic elements of conversational intelligence.

D.I.R. is a simple but powerful tool to create inclusive conversations where people are heard and where all perspectives become part of the conversation. It also creates space for voicing feelings and emotions related to conclusions and decisions.

Here are the three steps in the D.I.R. Process:

D = Describe: gather all the facts/observations that you and the people involved can put on the table without attaching interpretation in the way you describe them. (e.g. ‘there was a person running toward me’, would typically be considered description. BUT: ‘there was a person running toward me and he looked like a criminal’, would typically be considered mixing Description and Interpretation).

I = Interpret: You should only put your interpretations on the table AFTER you have given all people involved a chance to voice their Descriptions. When you start looking at Interpretation it is crucial to give people room to voice their interpretations and create a time where you refrain from debating them. If it was a decision-making situation you might have to work toward a final interpretation or conclusion so that you can action it. If it was a regular conversation you might have to be ready to allow multiple interpretations to stay in the room. I know this is scary and not in line with the current societal norms, but if we want to create new cultural spaces, we must learn to be in relationship with people who do not agree with us!

R = Response: After interpretations have been shared, you are not done! Every so often, people share their opinion or interpretation, but they hold back on expressing the why, and the emotions that underpin or fuel their interpretation. Do yourself a favor and create room for expressing the emotions that are triggered because of an interpretation. So, ask questions like: “If that was true, which emotions does that trigger in you?” Or: “Now that we have agreed on a conclusion and a way forward; can you visualize yourself doing it and tell me what you feel as you are pursuing it?”

DIR is a simple tool, but a powerful way to start creating constructive conversations. Start at home, with friends, in your places of worship and at work! Practice it in safe places and then when you feel comfortable, start using it in places that are more challenging. The change starts with us, starts with your ‘circle of influence’, people who will listen and are willing to try something new…


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