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Experiencing experience

Cultural Intelligence is over-whelmingly acquired and developed through experience. This means, going to places and talking to people in their own environments is really important, although there is more to it than travel. The key is to make sure that we actually ‘experience the experiences’, explore these different cultural settings, rather than simply collecting them like stamps on a passport.

An extra eye

Travel to places where the culture is different and open up to it. Travel across generations: to schools and universities, and cut talk down to a brief introduction and then open it up to discussion, so that learning takes place. Travel to different parts of your community or city and see how different things look from there. Discover the one consistent message the world over: people hardly know one another. Of course, travel across the world, not just to see the sights but, as my South African colleague Elsbeth says, ‘to smell the coffee – and to suck the lemons’. The coffee because it makes us sit down and talk and sniff what is going on around us, and the lemons because they’re bitter and uncomfortable; they sting in our mouth and the sensation stays with us for some time.

Make sure you get your re-entry right. Recently, I met a journalist in Berlin, and I asked her what it was like to be back in her home town after years of global journalism. Her reply surprised me: ‘It’s taking a while. I thought that I would be valued by my colleagues and neighbours for my global experience, because I had been to some tough parts of the world. Far from it. They pretty much all asked why I had been away at all. And they all wanted to know how I was going to prove myself again now that I was back.’

Find the right guide

Wherever we travel, even in our own city, we will need good guides and plenty of them. The problem is, if we don’t know where we are and we don’t know what to look out for, how do we find a guide you trust? Many of the people I have spoken to about how to go about identifying someone who could be a good guide, have mentioned the importance of looking into that person’s eyes. They seem crucial to the trust decision, and across different cultures too. Albert Tucker is a Fairtrade pioneer from Sierra Leone. He gave me an interesting analogy from boxing. ‘In a boxing match, you must watch the eyes, not the fists. Watch the eyes and you will see what they are planning. So you will see the punch coming. Watch the fists and you will see it too late and you won’t be able to protect yourself.’

Have courageous conversations

Leaders must be prepared to have ‘courageous conversations’. There are very difficult subjects to touch on everywhere. Like a lot of the journey towards Cultural Intelligence, courageous conversation can be difficult, but it can also challenge received wisdom and your own assumptions, and make you see something afresh.

Switch from transmit to receive

From two-way radio communications, it means turning the dial so that we stop talking and have to listen. It can be hard to bear silence however silence does not automatically mean disengagement, and we shouldn’t assume that it means agreement either. Sometimes the silent need encouragement to talk. Sometimes they just need everyone else to be quiet. To learn more read the story of the shy academic. If we don’t switch to receive, we miss Cultural Intelligence learning opportunities.

Open the door

When we open the door, others can come in and we can go out. It’s physical, it’s mental and it’s sensory. The challenge is to open the door and not get bad-tempered when something unfamiliar comes through it. Gavin Dyer in Johannesburg puts it very well: ‘The African culture is loud. Loud and noisy. People laugh louder, clap louder, move noisily, dance loudly, shout louder, squeal louder, eat louder. Some people can’t cope with it, or even judge it harshly. Now, I see it as saying, “I have nothing to hide.” There are no whispered conversations here.’

The other challenge is to go out through the door ourselves, and do it with confidence. There is an alternative, of course, and many people choose it. To leave the door locked, and stay behind it.

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This article is from the free online course:

Developing Cultural Intelligence for Leadership

Common Purpose