Culture Clash: How to engage people who have a different worldview than you
I was speaking to a large group of people last week about racial justice and the importance of learning about what we don’t know we don’t know. Many people in the room are leaning in, wanting more. They know what we all know: that in the current state of affairs, we will need better strategies for engaging people whose worldview or perspective is different from our own.
After the talk, a white man approaches me. He tells me something I hear often in my line of work: racism is over; we’re living in a post-racial society now. I brace myself for the conversation to come, and I remember all of my tools. I take a deep breath, look him right in the eye, and nod. My first instinct is to go into full-blown lecture mode with all the proof of how wrong he is. But I catch myself, knowing from experience how ineffective that strategy would be.
I choose instead to pause and breathe. I demonstrate transparency when I say out loud to him, “I’m not trying to make me right and you wrong.” I remember to look him right in the eye, to find his humanity, and to connect. We continue our conversation. He leans in, asks me some questions, and asks me for further resources to learn more. It was a successful encounter. I can tell he felt heard, and yet, open to learning new information.
Afterwards, I think that next time, I will mention Jane Elliott’s brilliant counter to the idea that racism is over. She asks her packed audience, “How many of you white folks would trade places with a black person today?” And she waits. The only sound is that of the people of color in the room turning in their chairs to see if anyone will raise their hand. She continues to wait and not a single white person raises their hand. She says, “You know what you just admitted? That this is happening, and you don’t want it for you. So why are you so willing for it to be the case for someone else?”
I love this notion because although it could be disturbing for folks of color to hear and witness, it cuts through to how deep and insidious white privilege is. This shows how unwilling some white folks are to talk about it or even consider that it exists. With that, we must be prepared to engage in these conversations effectively.
At our Matrix Center Advisory Board meeting, we talked about how to have these conversations. Here are our top 10 strategies we came up with:
- Stay calm and breathe;
- Come to the conversation with respect and compassion;
- Find a way to connect with the person (eye contact, for example, although that would not be appropriate in all situations or cultures);
- Let go of being “right” or you’ll end up in a tug of war that is unwinnable;
- Meet them where they’re at as opposed to asserting your point of view;
- Genuinely seek to understand their point of view; gently inquire about how they came to their conclusions; you might be surprised what you learn!
- Bring your passion about social justice, without being overbearing;
- Use examples of how these issues affect you personally; why do you care?
- Use the Platinum Rule: treat others as they would want to be treated;
- Keep in mind: you can’t “flip every pancake” – you’ll burn out trying; and it’s ok that you can’t; it’s better to move on and use your energy where it will be better received
How do you know when you’re successful?
- If the conversation doesn’t end with this one “confrontation;”
- If the other person leans in and shows curiosity;
- If the other person stops trying to be “right” and engages with you;
- If the other person asks for resources to learn more
The goal is not to establish a kumbayaa relationship. That is neither possible nor desired. You don’t need to end up best friends with the other person. Rather it’s a matter of shared humanity. Showing up with deep respect and dignity no matter the other person’s ideology goes a long way to creating change. They have a right to it.
Know that these conversations can be challenging, and rest assured, they will continue to happen more and more. Be ready. The more prepared you are, the more successful you’ll be connecting, respecting, and empathizing across different perspectives.
Dena Samuels, PhD
Author of: “The Culturally Inclusive Educator: Preparing for a Multicultural World” (Teachers College Press, 2014).
Dena Samuels Consulting