How To Develop Cultural Intelligence

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If you are a lawyer or physician, you likely work with clients or patients who differ from you in gender, race, physical ability and socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, conflicts and misunderstandings may arise from these differences. You can expand your ability to work with diverse individuals and teams by developing your cultural intelligence. In this post, we explore what it means to have cultural intelligence and offer starting points for personal development.

Consider these scenarios:

David, a family law attorney, has had some uncomfortable interactions with clients and colleagues. He views himself as open-minded and empathetic, but finds it difficult to relate to others with different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. David fears that he has unconscious or implicit biases that create these challenges. But, he isn’t sure how to identify or correct them, and feels embarrassed to seek guidance.

Brianna, a newly-minted physician, wants her patients to feel comfortable expressing their needs and asking questions. She strives to be friendly and outgoing to each patient, and to show she is eager to listen. Yet, she senses that some patients withhold sensitive information and hesitate to ask questions. Brianna wonders if she has blind spots that create barriers with her patients. She wants to correct these issues so that she can gain her patients’ trust.

Despite their good intentions, a lack of cultural intelligence prevents these practitioners from excelling. This is a common challenge faced by many legal and medical professionals.

Correcting weak cultural intelligence is essential for creating a more just world. Doing so is both practical and ethical – low cultural intelligence can make you less effective in your practice and may cause harm.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

This is how we at Thalia, define cultural intelligence, or CI:

CI is the capacity of an individual, team or group to adapt and function proficiently, respectfully and humbly in new cultural settings and to navigate cultural differences with sensitivity and poise.

With high CI, a person can better avoid communication and relational challenges that arise due to cultural differences. CI is about being sensitive to cultural conditioning and knowing how to accommodate and include others so that they feel they belong.

What is the Source of Cultural Intelligence? 

Most people associate the word “intelligence” with the brain or mind. Many are unaware that humans actually have three centers of intelligence. In addition to the Head, or thinking center, there is the Heart, or feeling center, and the Body (“Gut”), or doing center. Not only does the head-brain contain a hundred billion neurons, but scientists have discovered that the body-brain has a hundred million neurons  in the intestines and that there are forty thousand neurons in our hearts. Our three brains are in constant neuronal communication. 

These three centers collaborate to regulate our thoughts, intuition and emotions. When balanced, we are able to integrate all three intelligences to monitor and moderate our actions – even when under stress. High cultural intelligence comes when the Heart, Head and Body are in harmony. With our three centers synchronized, we can draw on our sensitivity, intuition, creativity and wisdom to connect with others in productive, meaningful ways. When out of balance, however, individuals are more reactive. They might make quick, unsound judgments, fall back on stereotypes or struggle to empathize with others. 

How does low Cultural Intelligence cause problems?

The main problem (though there are many others) caused by low CI is miscommunication. Poor communication can occur even in situations where cultural differences aren’t a factor, but insensitivity to cultural differences creates extra barriers. If you can adapt to the cultural differences of individuals and within groups, you can increase trust, reduce conflict and simplify decision making. All of these contribute to building and strengthening relationships.

What causes low Cultural Intelligence?

Our personality, our upbringing and our society condition us to categorize people based on characteristics like race, sex and gender, socioeconomic status, education level, physical ability, employment type and more. Our conditioning can create many barriers between us and others, including “implicit bias.” When our implicit bias leads us, we may act on unconscious stereotypes. Unlike conscious bias – when individuals knowingly embrace or act on discriminatory impulses – implicit bias is involuntary. Despite being involuntary, it still influences how we treat others.

Being unaware of our implicit biases is a barrier to developing cultural intelligence. We are less open-hearted and empathetic toward others. While we may not consciously discriminate against others, our biases can still emerge through more subtle microaggressions. Microaggressions manifest in what we say, our body language, the options we make available to others, and how much respect we show them.

No one is immune from implicit bias. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recounts this memory:

“As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later, I caught myself. I had fallen into the apartheid mindset, thinking that flying was a white man’s job.”

Even a great leader in the fight against racism was susceptible to cultural conditioning. This example invites us to identify our own weaknesses, to reshape our attitudes and to grow our cultural intelligence.

How to develop Cultural Intelligence

To increase our CI and become more effective professionals and leaders, we must dismantle our implicit bias. Here are some ways to get started:

Assessment: To begin, explore the Implicit Association Test created by Project Implicit. This free resource offers objective feedback on whether you have implicit bias in areas like gender, religion, race, age and skin tone. You remain anonymous when taking the tests and can answer honestly.

Suspend Judgment: When working on a team, or meeting with clients or patients, pause before the interaction begins. Create an intention to notice thoughts or attitudes that may influence how you treat others. This mindfulness practice can alert you to thought patterns that go unnoticed otherwise. When we are aware of our thoughts, we can better choose how to respond or behave in any situation. With practice, you will be able to watch your thoughts more consistently and become adept at noticing – and overriding – your implicit biases.

Expand Your Horizons: Seek out resources and media that provide perspectives from people of different backgrounds. Doing this diversifies your experience and helps you become more compassionate toward others.

Be Persistent: Reducing implicit bias does not happen overnight, even if you are very motivated to change. A lifetime of conditioning cannot be undone immediately. Persistence, and being willing to challenge yourself, is essential for progressing. Use your desire to become a more culturally intelligent practitioner, and to reduce discrimination in the world, to keep you on the path.

Coaching helps reduce implicit bias and increase Cultural Intelligence

Working with an experienced coach is a powerful way to unearth implicit bias, balance your head, heart and body centers, and improve cultural intelligence. If developing into a skillful, compassionate professional and leader is a priority for you, then guidance and support will help you progress.

A lack of cultural intelligence is often at the root of conflicts with teams and individuals. If you have difficulty navigating conflicts in your professional life, coaching can help. Thalia’s coaches are experienced in conflict resolution and in helping clients grow personally and professionally. We can help you become a conscious and discerning professional who makes a difference.

Get in touch with us today to discuss your goals and how we can help you flourish.