How to engage someone who is different than you? Communicating cross-culture, maintaining respect.

Aug 15, 2018

How do you engage someone who is different than you? Communicating cross-culture, maintaining respect and inspiring/motivating people in all walks of life to work hard and be effective.  

I live in Edmonton, Canada. We are a multicultural society in North America. Learning to work with, inspire and motivate people from all places and walks of life is key to success.

There are three really important things to do to engage people with differences that I’ll help you with today.

  1. Find a feeling of acceptance for difference inside yourself. How do you do that?
  2. Ask more questions before sharing opinions. Asking questions is critical if you want engagement.  What questions do you ask?  
  3. Look for common denominators.

(1) How do you find a feeling of acceptance for difference inside yourself?

It’s inside you. You can activate it. Honor that it’s okay for you to be to be different than others and then extend that to everyone. When we demonstrate a feeling of acceptance, we often inspire the same in others.  Do you want to be accepted? Show acceptance and it will come back to you.

We all have different DNA. We all have a different HIP (Human Interaction Process).  We are all unique and different and valid. Accept it and honor difference. 

People have different traditions. Ask about them. Show interest. Validate them. Don't assume. No matter the color, race, religion, ethnic origin of a person, honoring the fact that their culture is important and valid for them is key to motivating them. 

I’ve travelled to over 20 countries on 4 continents. I’ve hired and fired and achieved great results with people from many different cultures. I’ve made mistakes communicating and offended people and I’ve learned to correct them and make things right. I’m married to a woman who was born in Pakistan, moved to Winnipeg, Canada where she grew up, went to school and became a doctor. If i didn't honor and validate difference, we would have never met. 

I’ve been lucky to have had a natural ability to communicate with anyone. I’m also lucky to have had a mother that taught me acceptance of difference.

About 20 years ago I was traveling through Scotland. We stayed with a local couple who my wife knew. I was surprised to hear that the locals didn’t consider families who had lived in the town for 50 years local. They were outsiders--different. The guideline there for being considered local was that your family had been in town for over a hundred years. That's different than here in Canada. Your local if you've been in a town for a year. By honoring difference, I could engage with locals in the Scottish town and get along even if I didn't agree.  

If we take things to the extreme in North America, unless you are a native North American First Nation person, you’re an immigrant family.  One of my close friends was irritated when I called him an immigrant. His family has been in Canada for over 300 years. When I explained the thought pattern he hesitantly agreed. Here we all come from different cultures and we've learned to honor, validate, accept and get along mostly. 

When my Dad and grandparents came to Canada as Polish immigrants, they were shunned, ridiculed and oppressed in some way, as are most new immigrant cultures. The Irish, the Ukrainians, the Chinese, East Indians, etc. Most immigrants have challenges and barriers to integration or assimilation but work hard to fit in as best they can. Help them become part of of this great country.

Most want to succeed in their new country and contribute. They also want to maintain  some of their own culture. Do you like your family traditions? Most people do.  I like some of the Polish traditions, food and beliefs and have pride around them. Some I don't like. I'm sure you feel the same about your family traditions, etc. Like some. Don;t like others but accept them. Do the same for other cultures. 

Honor the fact that people have a right to like and be what they like. You want the right to be the unique you. You want acceptance for being…, right? Extend the same respect you want from others, to others.

Find acceptance for difference in yourself. It’s in there. Sometimes we have to dig for it, but it’s there. If you want to engage, inspire and motivate another person, find that acceptance for difference inside you and share it. That’s the first step to building a strong multicultural team.

(2) The second step is asking the right questions to engage them.

What questions do you ask?  Ask about them. Show interest. Seek first to understand then to be understood. When we demonstrate feelings of genuine inquiry and acceptance, we often inspire the same in others.

To engage people ask what they like and don’t like. Food, clothing, sports, family, hobbies etc.

Don’t put people in groups automatically. Ask about the different views in their home or home culture. When you get them to talk about differences at home, you begin to inspire acceptance of difference and that engages others.

If you’re comfortable with managing sensitive topics, ask about political views and religious views. I look for common denominators in religions and this helps me manage sensitive conversations with peace of mind and it inspires acceptance of others.

Before asking any questions, accept that you don’t know until you ask.  Don’t assume perceptions and answers. Accept the fact that just because you may have gotten one opinion from a person in that different culture, another person from the same culture could have a different view.

In my travels I’ve found that every culture has people with different world views, different likes and dislikes of food, different beliefs, etc. Do you notice people in North America have different views? Of course. Every nation has liberal and conservative people.  We have many different types of Christians. There are many types of Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists. Don't put people in one category just because they're from the same country. 

Difference is a fact of life in most cultures, and just because one person from a culture see’s things in an area of life one way, doesn’t mean they all do.

Know that you don’t know until you ask. Even if you consider yourself very accurate in your intuition of others, know that you are wrong sometimes. The most intuitive people I know when it comes to knowing what others might be thinking and feeling are still wrong 10% of the time. And when they get it wrong, things go off. Make sure you get it right, ask. 

Seek first to understand by asking questions and you will find it easier to engage and inspire and motivate.

(3) Look for common denominators and focus on those.

As you ask people about themselves, you will find things in common or patterns of thought and feeling that are similar to yours eventually. People do things in common ways. Search for common things with people with other cultures. I like food from every culture and I dislike food from every culture. If you inquire you will find common likes and dislikes with most people. You might have to ask more questions with some people to discover those common things. Do it. Find common ground.

All people communicate in the same process. We sense, think, feel, intend and act. That’s one place to find common ground. Ask what they are thinking and feeling about a topic. Clarify and confirm you got he interpretation of what they're saying correct. When you get the interpretation right, you've found common ground in an interpretation and that's a start.

All people deal with weather changes, another possible place to find common ground. Often you can find common ground discussing foods from different cultures rather than talking about food from one culture alone.

Often you can find common ground talking about sports or recreation activities sometimes.

If you’re at work there are topics you will find common ground on.

To recap.

To communicate effectively cross culturally:

  1. Find acceptance for difference inside yourself.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Find common ground.


Use this formula to engage and then you will find it easier to inspire and motivate.

Now that you’ve learned to engage across cultures, next week I’ll talk about going to the next level to inspire and motivate.


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