My field of work is all about difference, and I have cherished difference my whole life. I grew up in Los Angeles with children from all over the world. I pride myself on building bridges with people who are vastly different from me, because they make me better
and expand who I am.
Some in my social circle find this strange. They say, “But how do you adapt to difference without losing who you are?”
This is a valid question. I try to view adapting as an AND, not an OR. If I interact with and building bridges with someone who is different from me, this does not mean I have to give up my culture, my way of being, or my communication style. Rather, I gain different perspectives and styles that I can add to my repertoire. Living in India, for example, gave me a multitude of new and successful ways to work with a team.
That being said, I have discovered something key over the years: building bridges is not the only option for engaging with difference. In fact, sometimes it can be harmful. Trying to forge a connection in certain situations can take a heavy personal toll.
As my colleague Nadine said to me last week, a bridge requires a connection on the other side. In some scenarios, such a connection may not exist. We are welcome to try building it anyway, but we have the choice to do otherwise.
Here are some other options when it comes to difference of opinion, style, or power:
- Learn more on your own before attempting to build the bridge: If you’re struggling with someone from another culture, why not study up on that culture or get advice from a coach.
- Set boundaries: If someone exhibits harmful behavior toward you, you have the right to set boundaries. Let them know the impact of their behavior and what does/does not work for you.
- Get support from others: If assertiveness is exhausting or culturally uncomfortable for you, seek support from others who can speak up for you or help your voice be heard.
- Listen, then share: Listen and hear someone’s opinion, acknowledge that you have heard them through paraphrasing, then share your perspective. Using this method you can express your views without moderating or watering them down, as long as you are acknowledging the other person and avoiding rhetoric.
- Keep your distance: Sometimes we consistently feel bad when we are around a particular person; we may not even be able to explain why. And sometimes it doesn’t matter why; it only matters that you feel better. It’s okay to interact with someone only as needed and to keep your distance otherwise.
- Check assumptions: When someone’s communication or way of being is challenging for you, ask yourself “What differences might be at play here?” Be aware of cultural differences, neurodiversity, power dynamics, and marginalization.
Building bridges is a wonderful thing. The act of connecting through difference can push our comfort zone, enrich our lives, and sharpen a skill desperately needed in the workforce today. But bridge-building is not our only option. If we act from choice, we remain authentic and open.
What can you add to the list of options?