Diversity in others

When did you last hear ‘I’m not racist but …’ or ‘all this LGBTI stuff is just …’ or perhaps ‘I’ve got nothing against them personally, but…’?

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In this article I offer firstly a practical framework to get clarity on how we experience diversity in others. Secondly, I extend a challenge to discover a sense of self that is secure against the challenges presented by the diversity of those about us. Thirdly, I explore what it means to be curious and appreciate the diversity we encounter, work and live with.

The first article in this series shared some personal experience of the pleasure and pain of human diversity in conservation teams. A second article provided insight and practical tips on engaging with the diversity and conflict we experience within ourselves. Therein, I suggested that we must understand and respect our internal diversity before we can change our experience of diversity in others or the way our own diversity is regarded by others. If we are judgmental and critical of the diverse aspects of our own being, that will sooner or later show in our engagement with, or response to, diversity in others. In the final article for this series I will provide practical tips to manage bullying and harassment experiences when our diversity and individuality is not respected.

For clarity, my discussion of diversity in this series encompasses not just the high profile aspects of gender, race, sexuality etc., but also the different styles we see in other aspects of life and work, such as problem solving, communication or expressing love. As the difficulties we experience are common to all aspects of human diversity, so is the framework for a better way forward.

1.     Getting clear on how we experience diversity in others

We will never change our experience of diversity if we avoid or deny the differences we see, sense, feel or think about. Our experience of diversity in others can range from frustrating and threatening to inspiring and energising.  Sometimes these conflicting assessments and experiences may apply to the same person! Clarity of just what the differences are and why they matter to us is the first step to a more constructive engagement and healthy experience of diversity.  To gain this essential clarity:

  • Distinguish the facts of the situation from the thoughts. Facts are what was seen, heard or said without any interpretation, judgement, or attribution of motive. These interpretations, assumptions, judgements are thoughts. Distinguish and note thoughts without any commitment to action or attachment to our sense of identity.
  • Exercise emotional intelligence and identify core emotions and distinguish these from associated feelings and sensations triggered in the body. Emotions are the physical, instinctive physiological response to an environmental stimulus that originate in the brain’s amygdala and are common to all of humanity (e.g. fear, anger, grief, happiness)[1]. Feelings are an interpretative assessment of emotion or physical sensations (e.g. I feel sick). Sensations are physical responses in the body such as nausea, shivering, and hot flushes.
  • Assess your reaction to the diversity. Is it something I appreciate, welcome, am curious about, find interesting? Is it unattractive, threatening, disgusting, detestable? Perhaps both positive and negative aspects are present – this is common.
  • Consider what values are being met, threatened or undermined in some way? We typically have values related to self-respect, family and relationships, leisure, power and money, our environment. Note some of our values may exist in tension with other values (e.g. providing for family and caring for the environment).
  • Consider what needs are being satisfied, or ignored or threatened? Fundamental human needs include food, safety (physical and psychological), reproduction, certainty, variety, acceptance, autonomy, growth, contribution, fairness and respect. Note that some of our needs can be opposites (e.g. certainty and variety) and we need both.

Three useful questions to ask ourselves are:

  1. How might my reaction or response to diversity (words, action, judgment) illustrate my values?
  2. How does my response (or lack of it) meet my core needs?
  3. How could my response support or boost my sense of self?’

Taking time to work through these questions will bring system-level processes and beliefs to conscious awareness. When we have conscious clarity on how we are experiencing the human diversity before us we are in a better position to engage constructively with it, and if desired, change our attitude, beliefs and behaviours toward it. Before we look at how we might more readily appreciate the human diversity about us, I want to extend a challenge to discover a sense of self that is secure against any threats posed by the diversity we encounter.

2.     Developing a secure sense of self

I have suggested above that key reasons we struggle with diversity in other people is that our values, needs and sense of self may be threatened or undermined in some way. One approach to correct this vulnerability is to review and strengthen or renovate the foundations of our own identity.  

An important question to ponder is ‘Who am I?’ Try answering without reference to common identifiers such as our name, title, role (work), gender, nationality, family or social connection. When we try to identify who we are apart from what we do, who we know and where we come from, it can be confronting and uncomfortable, a space of emptiness, great uncertainty and vulnerability. What is left but to say ‘I am a human being’ and even more profoundly, simply ‘I am’. Perhaps the most fundamental expression of what it is to be a self-aware being, a human ‘be-ing’, is this ability we have to say ‘I am’ and then create and choose identifiers to elaborate our sense of self in ways that are helpful in relationship with others. Readers with Judaeo-Christian heritage will also recognise ‘I am’ as the essential name by which God revealed himself in biblical scriptures and the self-identification that led in part to Jesus being executed by the religious leaders. At this level we have identified common ground with all humanity and for some, God. If we can sit in the rather naked space of simply ‘I am’ we are no longer seeking to prove or defend our identifiers. In the writing of Richard Rohr, “There is nothing to prove and nothing to protect. I am who I am and it’s enough”[1].  

When we need to prove or defend ourselves as worthwhile, significant or powerful, it drives a need to compare and compete with others. We need to criticise, judge and demonstrate our superiority and we sacrifice curiosity, connection, respect and love in the process. Interestingly, perhaps the highest price we pay is our ability to rest. Few can genuinely rest (including the mind) and do nothing for more than a few minutes because of a driving need to be active. We are highly dependent on doing something, anything, to defend or prove to ourselves, our competitors, our gods, and others that we are not as bad or inadequate as we fear and more so actually worthy of love and respect.

This essential step of creating awareness around our core identity leads to recognising and linking the choices we make to build on our ‘I am’ identity with additional identifiers such as gender, race, work and family relationships. As we recognise our choices - particularly the way those choices reflect or reinforce our values or meet core human needs - so we can consciously review and take responsibility for the consequences of our beliefs, words and actions (or lack of) in the face of the diversity observed in our fellow ‘I am’ human beings. In recognising choices, we can be responsible for finding constructive or more resourceful ways to engage with diversity in others that enhances and enriches life for all. No particular aspect of our identity need constrain us, nor deterministically define who we are and what we do beyond our own choosing. What can you do with this liberating and empowering awareness?

3.     Appreciating the diversity we encounter,
        work and live with

Here are some practical principles that help to engage appreciatively with the diversity about us. To engage appreciatively is a choice, If we choose to engage differently, we should be clear about that choice, our intention and possible consequences. The following principles assume, in the first instance, that the diversity we encounter is not an immediate or serious risk to our personal safety or the wellbeing of others. Responding to diversity and behaviour that threatens our physical or psychological wellbeing will be addressed at greater length in the next and final article in this series.

a).  Choose to be curious and appreciative. We are freer to be curious, explore, appreciate and even embrace the diversity about us when we are internally secure with our own identity, value and worth as a human being. By Intentionally choosing to be curious, we apply one of Steven Covey’s foundation principles for highly effective living by seeking first to understand before being understood. Asking curious or appreciative questions is a practical demonstration of interest in another person, an interest in their heart – what makes them tick; their mind – purpose and values; and their soul – their true or authentic self. Here are a few curious questions:

What values might this express?
Where does the passion come from?
What positive intention is beneath this?
How might this be a helpful response to life and circumstances?
What different insight might I gain here?
How might this diversity enrich my life?
How might this diversity challenge me to grow as a person?

When inviting anyone to share their heart, maintain the curiosity and suspend judgment and criticism. Set aside any agenda you may have to change them to be, think, do as we are. If we want people to really change, not simply comply, it is essential this occurs by inspiration and choice rather than by demand, coercion, pain or fear.

b)  Appreciation does not mean we have to take on the diversity of others as our own. Appreciating a piece of artwork in a shop does not mean we have to like it, buy it, nor steal or trash it if we can’t afford or don’t want to buy it. Where diversity expresses different values to our own, appreciation does not mean we have to change our values or take on a value we don’t want to. Note that we can also have values that conflict with each other and can be appropriate in different contexts (e.g., a value around certainty and predictability will at times be at odds with variety and surprise). Appreciation does mean we may choose to respect that other people have different values at this time in their life, or even our own life. It is also important to note that our values or their relative priority may change with time, new information, new experiences, new beliefs, new circumstances.

c)  Divergent thinking, even conflict can be helpful and constructive. Perhaps our biggest problem with conflict is our belief it is morally wrong. This need not be the case. Conflict is essentially a difference of thoughts, values or competing objectives. The pain and moral wrongs of conflict occur when actions and words are disrespectful and harm the other party and bystanders. Respectful and resourceful conflict explores competing objectives to identify the common ground and positive intention in higher level outcomes and innovative pathways to success.

d)  Boundaries for personal safety, social wellbeing and even national interest are also appropriate. Determining when we run from danger or stand and fight to protect our personal safety (physical, psychological and spiritual) has several elements and will vary from one person to the next. For the purposes of this discussion, let it suffice that we need to be able to articulate our need for safety to ourselves and others. It will help to articulate the values associated with safety along with their relative priority. Having some principles or frameworks for complex decision making will also help. Collect an array of strategies that have been successful in the past or could be applied in various scenarios. Identify your values that will be inconsistent with these strategies so that any internal conflict with those values is not a barrier to action when the strategy is needed. Where boundaries are crossed and there is risk of serious personal harm for self or others, know your safe places and people (family, friends, professionals).

 

Conclusion

There is wisdom in working to our innate skills, strengths and values. There is also wisdom in exploring the diversity evident in the people about us. Appreciation and self-aware choices can push us beyond our comfort zones to new insights, adventures, innovation, expanded skills and unforeseen benefits.

In conclusion, I offer that we all want to be treated with love and respect for the human being we are, whatever our shape, size, colour, beliefs and hopes. When secure in our own sense of being human, we are in a strong position to be curious and even appreciate the diversity present in the people about us.

The final article in this diversity series explores ways of responding when diversity is not respected and boundaries for personal safety are crossed.

 Endnotes

[1] Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed 2003
[2] Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards 2011

Photo credits

Hands by Hannah Busing on Unsplash
Mask by Iulia Mihailov on Unsplash
Who by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Heart by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ross Rowe

Coach, Ross Rowe Coaching

I am a problem solving and executive life coach accredited with the World Institute for Action Learning and the International Coach Federation. I have over 25 years of workplace experience in environmental science and management. I coach for the beauty of life, wonder of diversity and rewards of exploring.
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Comments

Go to the profile of Ussi Abuu Mnamengi
4 months ago

Excellent, thanks for sharing great content

Go to the profile of Lara Reden
4 months ago

Thanks for sharing, Ross! You make a good point about how self-awareness helps build empathy from which you can build stronger relationships.