For the past six years, I have participated in a four-day Diversity Think Tank. This conference brings together culturally diverse professionals in dialogue around inclusion and diversity. We are diverse community in about every way we can be; culture, gender, class, sexual orientation and age. We hail from all over the country and our goal is to be in conversations around issues that have meaning. Sometimes this process gets very messy.
One year I joined a discussion with predominantly African American women around the topic “micro-inequities towards women in the workplace.” We were about to begin when I raised my hand and said, “I hope that we can create a safe place where I can ask what may seem like some stupid questions.” A young woman turned to me and lashed out, “Your safety Denise is frankly my worst day.”
I felt my face burn, as if I had been stung (I had) my heart was racing, and I wanted to retaliate. But I was confused, humiliated and enraged; all signals of an amygdala hijack (our bodies red alarm response). I considered leaving the conference right then, but am ultimately glad I didn’t. After our discussion ended, I was befriended by an African American woman closer to my age. She put her arm around me sensing my distress and helped me understand what had just happened. I learned that my request for safety triggered rage in this his young-woman because no one had ever made life safe for her. My request, in her eyes, was a privilege she was never given.
This deeply uncomfortable incident propelled me into a decade long personal study of exploring differences, my white privilege, and ultimately into the field of conflict resolution. It has fundamentally changed me and the way I think!
We are all unique with different personalities and relationships to conflict. Nowhere is there anyone else exactly like us, even when we come from the same family and culture. Although we know that sometimes it is hard to relate to even our closest family members, our chances for misunderstandings can become more challenging when we come from different cultural backgrounds and world views.
When our brain detects a threat, which can be as simple as a difference of opinion, our body signals exhibit mild discomfort, alarm or even panic. We are descendants of people who lived in tribes and people from outside our tribe were usually considered dangerous. In such a world, only the hypervigilant survived.
Would life be easier if we thought and behaved alike? In a word, “yes.” All you have to do is notice how good you feel when you see eye to eye with someone about a particular problem, or when you eat the same foods, read the same books, share similar world views and can even finish each other’s sentences. It is easy, right? You feel connected and comfortable. Your body moves towards sameness and away from differences. It is natural.
But it doesn’t foster growth. Sameness, or being surrounded by an echo chamber of people who think and behave just like us won’t help us to evolve and grow, either in our personal relationships, our organizations, country, or even as a species. Embracing our differences definitely will.
Instead of a world where we desire that everyone think and behave like we do, what if we made a real effort to:
• Challenge ourselves to look at solutions from a different point of view?
• Probe deeper into ours (and other’s) motivations, perspectives, and experiences?
• Stay in a state of curiosity longer to sort out where others are coming from?
• Let go of our biases and our need to be right?
• Bring the “undiscussables” to the surface?
Authentic listening is not easy, but like any skill, it can improve with practice. When we let go of the ME perspective and our endless need to self-reference, we begin to grow in our understanding of others, deepen in our understanding of self and discover the bridges that are always between us.