How do you deal with otherness?

Humanity is infested with a lethal disease. Fear of the foreign. Uneasiness with otherness.
One could argue that during the last decade there has been a growing global trend of Xenophobia. Dealing with otherness appears to be really difficult for many. Years ago some people argued that globalization will alleviate the fear of what people perceive as foreign. Right now we are experiencing the opposite, especially in the so-called developed Western world. Globalization brought us an almost unlimited exchange of goods and services, it didn’t necessarily come with a widespread acceptance of different ideas and worldviews.

Turn on the news at any given moment, anywhere in the world, and you will be confronted with reports of violence against people. It is probably safe to assume that one main reason why humans resort to violent behavior is an inability to resolve conflicts with dialog and compromise. And often conflicts arise between people who view each other as being different. Of course, otherness is not the only cause for confrontations, however, often it’s what is foreign that lets people respond with fear.

As humans we have a choice in how we react to our environment. We can follow instinct, we can reply based on emotion, or we can use reason and intelligence. When people resort to an aggravating outside impulse with the primal reflexes of fight or flight, there is a chance for a violent response. And even if a person’s reaction to disrupting impulses bypasses the reptilian part of the brain and is processed in the brain’s limbic system (from which emotions and value judgements originate), how we discern a good stimulus from a bad one is based on prior experiences. If those were unpleasant, a hostile reaction is more likely.

Human BrainOur brains record memories of behaviors which produced either agreeable or disagreeable experiences. These experiences shape the value judgments we make – more often than not unconsciously – and they exert quite a strong influence on our behavior.
Or, as you will hear me say during training sessions: Don’t believe a word I say. Because everything I say is biased. It is based on my own experience.

To overcome this bias, whether it is conscious or unconscious, it is necessary that we increase the number of experiences we have and that we create new memories which will overwrite the old ones. The more pleasant memories we have with otherness the less likely we are to react to the foreign with fear, apprehension, or violence.

In our cultural coaching programs we facilitate making these new experiences by encouraging the participants to expose themselves to situations in which they will encounter new things and behaviors – actions and manners that differ from what the coachee considers to be “normal.” Stepping outside of the proverbial comfort zone is the best way to learn and to grow as a person.

This isn’t accomplished over night, to master one’s flexibility in the face of otherness it takes practice and commitment. It is also not rocket science.
To illustrate how easy it can be to challenge your own view of the world, I’ll point you to a TED talk by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who says:

I’m deeply disturbed by the ways in which all of our cultures are demonizing “the Other” by the voice we’re giving to the most divisive among us. Listen to these titles of some of the bestselling books from both sides of the political divide here in the U.S. “Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder,” “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” “Pinheads and Patriots,” “Arguing With Idiots.” They’re supposedly tongue-in-cheek, but they’re actually dangerous. Now here’s a title that may sound familiar, but whose author may surprise you: “Four-and-a-Half-Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.” Who wrote that? That was Adolf Hitler’s first title for “Mein Kampf” — “My Struggle” — the book that launched the Nazi party. The worst eras in human history, whether in Cambodia or Germany or Rwanda, they start like this, with negative other-izing. And then they morph into violent extremism.

Now, while Lesser’s perspective is guided more by the often contentious dynamics of the political arena, her approach applies just as much to global professionals who face behavioral differences when working and living abroad, or when leading, managing, and motivating across cultures.

Lesser’s concept for dealing with otherness is radically simple: Take someone who doesn’t agree with you (or whose different behavior is a challenge for you) to lunch and ask them three questions to find out what’s really in their hearts. In doing so, there are a few guidelines.
First of all, decide on a goal: to get to know one person from a group you may have negatively stereotyped. Then, before you get together for lunch, agree on some ground rules. These work well: don’t persuade, defend or interrupt. Be curious; be conversational; be real. Then you go into these questions: 

  • Would you please share some of your life experiences with me? 
  • What issues deeply concern you?
  • What have you always wanted to ask someone from the other side? 

At that point your job is to listen.

Lesser closes with a beautiful quote by ancient Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” 

Now the question for you is: Who will you take to lunch?

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