Cultural competence, the ability to interact effectively across difference, is a significant contributor to success for both individuals and organizations. Yet, oftentimes, we tend to believe that in today’s diverse multicultural world, we already “get it,” and as a result, few take the time to build this skill set.
Like anything else, if you want to be more culturally competent, you have to work at it.
In my work to help individuals and organizations develop cultural competence, I see a number of myths that keep people from seeing the need to develop this skill.
- Myth #1: I’m not around people who are different from me that much, so it’s a moot point
Every interaction is an interaction across difference. That means we all experience this, all the time. I’m misled if I think this person is just like me because I don’t see any obvious differences between the two of us—we’re the same race, gender, age, etc.
Yet we are different because our filters are different, and it is our filters that determine how we see and respond to each other. If we allow ourselves to be lulled by external similarities, we easily miss the broader spectrum.
- Myth #2: Exposure = Competence
Here we make statements like “I’m around differences all the time. I have a gay couple for neighbors, my mom has lived with a disability all my life, and my best friend is black!” The inherent belief in these statements is that “I am exposed to difference, therefore I am competent in my interactions across difference”—as if a new skillset is in the air when differences are present and all we need to do is breathe it in.
The ability to interact effectively across difference, like any other complex skill, needs to be consciously developed. Think of it in comparison to developing math skills. You would never assume a child could learn math if you just sat them in a room all day where mathematicians were present. As with math, we need intentional, developmental learning and practice to nurture this skill.
- Myth #3: I get this stuff; it’s my coworkers (or spouse or neighbors) that don’t! Most people, if asked, would say that they do pretty well interacting across difference—that they are already fairly competent. Yet the reality is that only a very small percentage of us actually are competent. This ever-present gap between our perception and reality leads to much of the confusion and conflict that happens as we interact across difference. If I believe I “get it” and still experience situations where interactions with others are ineffective, then it must be their issue.
- Myth #4: Identity = Competence This Myth is particularly tricky in that, while widely believed, it goes unspoken more often than not. It’s the notion that people from marginalized groups—especially people of color and women—are somehow more skilled at interacting across difference, that somehow the experiences tied to our identity inherently increase the reality of our perceptions. In actuality, that’s simply not the case. Going back to the second Myth, we need to deliberately develop the ability to Filter Shift, no matter our cultural origins or identity.
- Myth #5: I’m colorblind!
This comment is typically heard as an individual is trying to frame him/herself as a generally good person. The assumption is that only bad people have biases while in actuality we all have biases. Biases are morality-neutral. They’re a natural product of our brains working to categorize and make sense of the world for us.
Eliminating bias is an unattainable goal. Instead, to be more effective, we need to recognize and understand our biases and their impact on how we see and operate. We can only do that by acknowledging that we have biases in the first place.
- Myth #6: Comfort = Competence
We’ve all felt discomfort at one point or another in our lives as we have encountered difference. It may have been the first time we ate dinner at a friend’s house, or the first time we walked into a new workplace, new neighborhood, or new country.
The fallacy here comes when we believe that as the discomfort dissipates, a generalized competence somehow materializes. However, just because we’ve become comfortable in a particular situation, or with a particular person, doesn’t mean we’ve learned how to be effective outside of that single situation or with anyone other than that particular individual.
Learning to Filter Shift
Our unconscious mind snaps filters into place so fast it feels natural to see things the way we do. The judgments we make (based on what we see) feel “right,” “correct,” “good,” “obvious.” However, as demonstrated above, we’re not seeing clearly. Our automatic filters are limiting the spectrum of difference we perceive while presenting the illusion of clarity.
At first glance this problem can seem overwhelming. I mean, what can we possibly do about a process we don’t consciously perceive happening? How do we see beyond these Myths?
The answer is surprisingly simple—though please note I said simple, not easy. We learn how to Filter Shift. Filter Shifting is the ability to SEE Self, SEE Others, and SEE an effective approach.
In my book Filter Shift: How Effective People SEE the World, I explain how we can train ourselves first to clearly see our own filters, then to recognize the situations in which they’re likely to be used, and finally, to consciously shift those filters, opening our eyes bit by bit to the whole available spectrum of difference.
When we’re aware of how our unconscious mind filters and decides things for us, then we can also begin to see the complexity of filters that are at play in the unconscious minds of those with whom we are interacting, and respond effectively to the richness of that complexity.
The realities behind these myths:
Every interaction is a cultural interaction; and we know that cultural competence is a significant contributor to effectiveness and success for both individuals and organizations. Yet, because we believe that we already “get it,” few take the time to build this mindset and skillset. You can’t just breathe it in, so if you want to be more competent, you have to work at it.
Sara is a nationally-recognized speaker and consultant specializing in the areas of leadership, diversity, and organizational effectiveness.
With over 25 years of experience, Sara balances her real-life anecdotes with research-based theories to deliver for her reader what she delivers for her clients.