Beyond Tolerance: Leaving Your Comfort Zone

by Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin
Resource Management Services, Inc.

Opening our hearts to diversity is not always easy, but there is much to be gained from breaking out of the mold.

We live in a diverse and global world, yet our differences often bring about misunderstanding and conflict. People or ideas that are different from our own may create discomfort for fear of the unknown. However, the true goal of diversity is to embrace its complexities and blessings, rather than dread the change it may bring.

Many companies utilize workshops to help employees better understand the many opportunities that diversity can offer. The emphasis is to move from a position of being afraid of differences, to tolerating them, to appreciating their benefits... to move beyond tolerance. That concept is one that many of us would agree upon, but how can we move from tolerance to appreciation?

From Awareness to Action
Having a clear definition is the first place to begin, but even the word diversity has many meanings. Merriam Webster offers this definition: “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements… especially: the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In reality, diversity encompasses race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and life experience—each of which may impact how diversity is understood and viewed.

A seminal, three-stage model from researchers Derald Sue and David Sue illustrates the development of multicultural competency:

  1. Awareness. We must first be aware that there are individual differences—but that we are more alike than different. Then we must be clear in our personal beliefs and values and how they differ from others.
  2. Knowledge. We must obtain knowledge about those who are different. As Dr. Jeff Kottler, another leading diversity expert, states: “Have the courage to enter into the world of those you are trying to understand by learning their unique cultures, family histories, languages, customs, values and priorities.”
  3. Skills. Specific communication skills may be needed to more sensitively and effectively talk with others.

But awareness, knowledge and skills are not enough. We must be able to put these stages into action with our consistent words and behaviors. As we work to better understand the issues surrounding diversity, cognitive dissonance and anxiety may occur. To understand others may cause us to look at our own beliefs with a different perspective. This may be uncomfortable, but necessary.

A favorite anecdote demonstrates how traditions or beliefs passed down through the ages may eventually need to be changed. A newlywed couple is preparing their first Sunday dinner, a pot roast with tasty vegetables. Just before placing the roast in the pan, the wife takes a large knife and cuts off the end of the meat. Observing this, her husband asks why she did that, and the wife replies, “I don’t truly know, but my mother always does that!” The curious wife calls her mother, who says, “I don’t truly know, but my mother always does that!” Finally, the wife asks her grandmother why she cuts off the end of the meat. The grandmother begins to laugh. “Honey, I cut off the end of the meat because my pan was way too small for the roast!” How many of us have acquired our beliefs and behaviors from our own culture without looking at how and why those very beliefs originated?

Understanding Our Differences
When engaging in multicultural training, much-needed information is often given, but there seem to be few “activating events” that get us away from the intellectual view of diversity and into the personal. Many of our prejudices, of course, stem from our current worldview. When someone has a different belief or experience, frequently the only way to make meaning is to enter the experience with preconceived perceptions from prior life experiences and filters. This may help relieve discomfort, but the inferred meaning may not be accurate.

In order to better understand the reaction, one must:

  • Describe what was observed. People often react by interpreting what is assumed, not describing what was observed. Once a description of actual events is understood, uncolored by emotions and assumptions, the second tier can produce additional information.
  • Introduce and describe feelings and emotions. Prejudices may create uncomfortable, angry or confused emotions. These feelings must be discussed for progress to be made.
  • Discuss meaning. Most individuals desire immediate answers to unfamiliar events by ascribing meaning from their own perception. This may provide comfort and security, but again, that meaning may not be accurate, and may require additional knowledge. Many of us do not realize that our personal interpretations are filtered and may not always apply to another culture or person.

Understanding our differences does require additional time. But if we have the courage to ask someone with a different perspective what something means to them, a perceptual switch can begin to emerge, and a new understanding is slowly founded. Any discussion that helps us “get out of our heads and into personal belief systems” is a powerful mechanism to learn from in order to integrate diversity into our life. These types of experiences and discussions can become catalysts for change—and they are necessary if diversity is to be lived and acted upon.

Breaking Out of the Mold
Several of the commercials that aired during this year’s Super Bowl explored the theme of diversity and tolerance. The Airbnb commercial, for example, sent a strong, poignant message: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

A new Apple commercial, which aired during the holiday season, conveyed a similar message. It featured Frankenstein's monster, who wanted to join in the festive spirit on the town square. Placing light bulbs on his electrical leads, he began to sing, “There is no place like home for the holidays.” Though it scared some of the townsfolk, a girl began to sing with him, and eventually—because one little girl had the courage to stretch out of her comfort zone—the entire town began to sing. Of course, the monster shed tears of joy. The commercial ended with the quote: “Open your hearts to everyone!” Opening our hearts to diversity is not always easy, but there is much to be gained from breaking out of the mold. The next time you go to lunch, don’t sit in the same place. Sit with different people, or ask someone new to dinner. Get to know people who are different from you. If a committee must be created in the workplace, select people with a range of talents, skills and backgrounds—don’t just select those who look and behave like you do.

Designing a diverse team offers a greater chance for creativity and healthier solutions. It may take more time to listen and suspend judgments, but the outcome will be far more effective. Then, and only then, can we truly begin to turn tolerance for others into acceptance and appreciation of diversity. iBi

Dr. Lori Russell-Chapin is a licensed clinical professional counselor with more than 30 years of experience, as well as an author, lecturer and professor at Bradley University.

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