When it comes to communication, if we do not respect someone’s unique sociocultural background, we may intentionally or unintentionally be discounting or threatening that person’s core need for identity. Research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes indicates that when one’s identity is threatened, defensive psychological mechanisms are activated, which can lead to conflict, anger, and resentment.
Preventing conflict, therefore, requires our recognition and thoughtful consideration of others’ culturally specific styles and preferences, including those grounded in ethnicity, race, religion, gender, age, sexuality, relationship status, and more. Yes, these may be a lot to consider, and no, we are never going to be perfect. But getting better at respecting these preferences and styles will help us avoid unnecessary tension and misunderstandings.
To maintain and improve relationships, we need to feel a sense of mutual trust, care, and interdependence, that we are working toward even a small, shared goal. Honoring diversity (racial, ethnic, cultural, or otherwise) is much more likely to prevent conflict and yield satisfying outcomes between individuals and groups than pretending those differences do not exist or matter.
If you’re interested in becoming more open-minded and improving your relationships with coworkers, friends, and family members of different backgrounds, beliefs, and opinions, the following are a few steps you can take. This process will not be easy. If it is, you’re probably not doing it right! However, it is well worth the effort.
Educate yourself. Find opportunities in or near your community to expand your cultural horizons. Try to educate yourself on different cultures and religions. Be cognizant of what you do not yet know or can never know. As often as you can, seek out people with opposing viewpoints (perhaps a friend or family member) and just listen. Do not argue. Recognize any bias you have, and do not simply listen to refute everything you hear. Consider their points of view, even if just for one minute. Let them know you hear them and are trying to understand. When they’re done speaking, you could say, “Thank you for telling me that. I’d like to take some time to think about it all.” Or, if you don’t really understand, you can ask a few questions in the spirit of curiosity and discovery. Do not ask “leading” questions that are meant to challenge them or provoke a different point of view.
Let go of your desire to be right. We all have the desire to be right. Challenge it: Resolve to be right for you and not right for everyone else. If you have trouble with this, ask yourself these questions: Why do I need to be right? What will I get if I’m right? Do I really need what’s right for me to be right for the other person? It’s possible you are conflating your desire to be right with a need to be right.
Aim for mutual understanding rather than persuasion. Never enter a conversation about sensitive issues or beliefs with the goal of convincing someone they are wrong. Not only will you fail, but you will also likely drive a wedge between the two of you. Your opinion about their beliefs is irrelevant and will likely come off as arrogant and insensitive. Instead, ask questions, learn, and try to under- stand. Make understanding the primary goal. If you take time to listen and try to understand their beliefs and values, you will likely open a space for them to drop defenses and actually listen to you in hopes of understanding your beliefs and values. Remember that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
Empathize on an individual basis. It is far easier to judge or feel angry with a group or an idea than it is with an individual person. If we can see the nuances of an individual, we can see parts of ourselves in them and open ourselves up to their unique life experiences and how their beliefs came to be, rather than making assumptions about their value system based on the group they appear to identify with.
With this in mind, remember that we only see small slivers of anyone else’s life. We do not see their struggles, their pain, their joys, their histories, or their everyday experiences. Reflect often on what you believe, especially around potentially controversial or sensitive subjects related to culture, race, ethnicity, or politics. Do the work to identify any implicit biases and consider the advantages you may have that others do not when discussing topics relevant to their experience.
Remember what you have in common. Do your best to consciously recognize the commonalities you share with other people. Foster a sense of pride in that shared group or value system and feel aligned to them as one of the members of your larger human community.
This is a modified excerpt from Conflict Resolution Playbook: Practical Communication Skills for Preventing, Managing, and Resolving Conflict by Jeremy Pollack.