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Put Your Foot in Your Mouth? Strive to Thrive.

10 ways to keep your cultural understanding moving forward—even when you mess up.

A few months ago, I had the honor — and fun! — of speaking at Relate Live by Zendesk, a three-day conference on how people can build better relationships with their customers and each other. (See my post-event video here!)

In my presentation, “What if I say the wrong thing? Interrupting bias in ourselves and others,” I talked about how people can practice culturally effective habits to help build more authentic and inclusive relationships across race, gender, class, culture, age, and ability.

I also offered answers to some of those big, scary questions we all have when we’re working on finding and overcoming our biases: What should I do if I say the wrong thing? Or if someone else does? How do I keep my understanding of different cultures and worldviews moving forward without dying of embarrassment along the way?

Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Expand
    your comfort zone!
    Understand that your way of seeing the world
    is just that—your way. Hang out with people who will be honest with you
    and share their different views of the world without blame or shame. Use
    that exposure to push out your world’s boundaries and eliminate the blind
    spots.
  1. If
    you don’t want to say the wrong thing, pause before you speak
    . It
    seems so obvious! Yet it’s crucial. There have been plenty of times when I
    was extremely glad I’d held my tongue until my revealing
    and embarrassing assumptions about a person were challenged.
  1. Be
    kind to yourself when you discover blind spots
    . It takes time to
    understand the ways you’ve been shaped by biases over the course of your
    lifetime. You couldn’t see all of the possible perspectives even if you
    tried. No one can.
  1. Get
    accustomed to making mistakes.
    It’s inevitable once you operate
    outside your comfort zone. It’s a good sign, actually. The most important
    thing is adopting the attitude that cultural competence is an important
    skill to have and you will do what it takes, including risking
    embarrassment, to keep moving forward.
  1. Welcome
    correction as an opportunity for learning.
    Change is hard even
    when you are committed to that change—and changing one’s language can be
    especially difficult. But the experience can be invaluable, even as it
    makes you more aware of your shortcomings.
  1. Engage,
    rather than disengage.
    You might be tempted to withdraw from a
    relationship after putting your foot in your mouth. But try to see it as
    an opportunity to deepen the relationship, rather than a reason to abandon
    it.
  1. Learn
    to apologize.
    Sometimes when we move out of our intimate circle,
    our instinct is to defend ourselves (“that’s not what I meant!”) rather
    than to apologize. But intent is not the same as impact. An apology should
    look and feel like an apology. Give it the attention it deserves, and
    remember that apologizing is not a sign of weakness. People know that no
    one is perfect; what they don’t like is when we pretend to be.
  1. Be
    an Upstander.
    If you overhear someone revealing bias, find the
    courage to say something. Use a tone that’s welcoming and nonjudgmental,
    and use an “I” statement, such as “I have a hard time hearing…” or “I’m
    feeling pain for the so-and-so people…” You might choose
    a question, such as “Why do you say that?” or offer a different point of
    view, like “Actually, my experience has been…” Practicing this skill in a
    safe environment, with family and good friends, can help you build your
    confidence.
  1. Engage
    in training opportunities.
    Take advantage diversity training
    opportunities wherever you can find them: at your children’s school, your
    place of worship, your job, etc. Approach any training or workshop with a
    no-shame-no-blame-or-attack approach. Blaming or shaming ourselves or others
    does not advance the conversation or learning. Ask questions; it’s your
    opportunity to say the wrong thing in a safe environment.
  1. Be
    patient with yourself and others
    . Worldviews are stubborn. It takes
    time for entire shifts to happen, and sometimes revelations are fleeting.
    With patience, commitment, humility and willingness to learn, we can keep
    moving diversity and inclusion forward.

People are always saying to me, “Vernā is it ever going to get better? Are we ever going to experience true diversity?” And my feeling is, because I’m outrageously optimistic, I do!

You can find more insights on becoming more culturally effective in my book: What if I say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.”™ – Vernā Myers

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