Encouraging Mutual Understanding

As a new academic year begins, I begin working with the student leaders on my college campus on developing intercultural competence.  We have 92 countries represented on our campus, allowing students in a small town to meet people they may not normally encounter; people from all walks of life and with vastly different viewpoints.  This type of setting offers unique opportunities for students to positively engage with “the other” and to work for mutual understanding.

In working with the students, my goals include supporting them in the process of understanding how internal narratives impact external interactions, inspiring students to become self-aware, and encouraging students to work for mutual understanding.  What I present here is a process that I follow and teach, so I offer this as a suggestion to you.  Everyone starts in a different place, but the goal is for each path to follow an upward spiral, remembering that this is a process not an end point.

When we think about mutual understanding, what we often overlook are the invisible ways our internal selves impact our actions.  So that is where we start, understanding ourselves.  We don’t think of this as cultural exploration, but in a very real sense, it is.  We can think about ourselves and our culture as an iceberg.  The top of the iceberg is the visible part and it holds the aspects of ourselves that are easily seen (or heard).  Our behaviors, language, clothing, manners, holiday traditions, etc. fall into this top part of the iceberg.  But this top (and visible) portion is also the smallest part of ourselves and our culture.

The largest part of ourselves is invisible, hidden deep below the surface of the water.  To understand how internal narratives impact external interactions, we dive down and explore our hidden selves in order to discover who and how we are.  We dive below the surface to explore our values, priorities, and assumptions.  What do we know and how do we know it?  What do we value and why?  What were our previously held values, assumptions, priorities and how did they change?

Once we can identify our personal ways of being, we can begin to see when our ways of being differ from others’ ways of being.  We generally notice when people don’t share our values, assumptions, or logic only when there’s a clash in progress.  Think of it like two icebergs hitting against each other under the surface of the water.  It is not the tops of the icebergs that are clashing.  It is the deep and hidden parts of ourselves that help us make sense of each other and the world around us that are coming into contact with the deep and hidden parts of another person or group.  Once we can begin to see the clash for what it is, we can pause to consider the situation and then react in a much more positive way than we might if we simply reacted without fully understanding the situation.

Why would we react in a more positive way?  Because as we explore internally and see when our assumptions and values differ from those of others, we work to build empathy for others.  We build this empathy by allowing for others to have as rich an internal life as we do.  We ask questions and discover how others might view things differently.  We understand that it’s up to us to look at the situation from another perspective and see where others’ values, assumptions, and logic may differ from ours.  And through this open, respectful, and curious approach we encourage them to engage with us in this process.

Mutual understanding takes introspection and empathy.  The process I’ve just described is one option and it’s only the beginning.  Just as I invite my students to engage in this process of introspection and empathy, I invite you to do the same!