DUE/DSL Jointly Explore Cultural Competencies and Creating Allies

By Kim Benard, Program Advisor, Distinguished Fellowships, Global Education Office

On 25 June 2009, the DUE/DSL joint committee sponsored a professional development workshop on “Cross-Cultural Communications” led by Dr. Robbin Chapman, Manager of Diversity Recruitment in the School of Architecture and Planning. This was an opportunity to set in motion on-going dialogues between and among staff groups across DUE and DSL, as well as complement the ongoing diversity dialogues.

One of Dr. Chapmans’s very first points was that there is a general misrepresentation of what the term diversity itself means. “Diversity is the measure of variance within a group along a particular characteristic or dimension,” Dr. Chapman explained. She further described to forty-plus attendees that even amongst seemingly homogenous groups there exists great diversity, which can come in the guise of familial background, living conditions, or even conversational styles. At this point, she provided us with a flow chart that had “YOU” marked in the middle. Each participant was asked to write “sources of your cultural programming.” Or, in other words, we were asked to reflect upon our life experiences, which influences our current behaviors and opinions. I was astonished at how enlightening I found this exercise, as it was a logical conclusion but not something upon which I had previously reflected.

Another universally applicable component of Dr. Chapman’s presentation involved communication styles. Her view of an enriching dialogue involves a story arch with the point of the speech not being arrived at until the very end. This style came into direct conflict when she encountered others who only want efficient conversation with the barest of facts. Slowly, Dr. Chapman realized that if she were to have a successful conversation with these direct speakers, she would have to adjust her style of speech. She now restructures her language to include a conclusion at the beginning, so that direct speakers know the direction of her story. Her anecdote emphasized the importance of recognizing different modes of communication in others and how an awareness and modification of your own style can create more effective exchanges.

This led to the final group exercise, where she asked us to reflect upon the kinds of people with whom we find it most difficult to communicate. Some members of the audience shared their challenges, which led to a lively discussion about potential methods to create effective communication. Dr. Chapman’s overall advice was that when one feels uncomfortable or challenged, one must first take a second to reflect upon similarities between oneself and the perceived challenger. There are universal similarities, such as the human desire to be loved, that can give one a feeling of empathy with the other.

Dr. Chapman’s overall message at this useful session was that one must constantly be aware of different perspectives. While it may be challenging to communicate with people of different styles then oneself, with practice and patience mutual understanding may be achieved. We must all learn to suspend our judgment, search for our hidden assumptions, and speak honestly about things that make us uncomfortable.