VANESSA PATEL shares her experience of working in multicultural teams, and how different cultures interpret similar situations.
As a spiritual practitioner, I have the same goal for spiritual progress as millions of other people around the world. At the Heartfulness Institute, we are blessed with a truly rich cultural diversity. It never fails to amaze me how this assortment of people speaking different languages comes together in harmony at our regular meditation retreats. And yet, this homogeneity of oneness brings with it a fair share of interesting situations.
As a Heartful Communication facilitator, working with people worldwide has been a huge learning experience. This is quite apart from imbibing the “language” of compassionate communication. During our workshops in India, there is always a thrum of energy with participants keen to share incidents from their life and eager to display their understanding. At times, this presents a challenge to keep to time and to bring the stimulating discussion to a close.
By contrast, our workshops in Europe have silent pauses when the participants are given time to introspect and note down their reflections. It is very curious as we use the same material in the same format for all our programs. It led us to understand that Asians seem to be largely work-centric and wish to cover the ground with efficiency, while Europeans are more people-centric with a focus on getting to know the participants and connecting.
The beauty of this: when we observe each other’s sessions, we find the different styles very moving and mutually enriching – our post-session debriefs are abuzz with exchange.
The material and resources we use are continually evolving. During one session on behaviors that break connection – what we call “circuit breakers” – it became clear that cultural relevance plays a huge part, especially when it comes to listening without interrupting. While deep listening lends support to an aggrieved person, enabling them to speak fully, some of our participants pointed out that in their culture it is seen as indifference. It is disconnecting if they don’t step in to console or advise, so that the person feels they are not alone. At times, an interjection may be required on the speaker’s part so that the other person feels the empathy.
When similar cultural issues are addressed, there are always valuable takeaways. A seemingly innocuous sentence like, “The children are playing outside while their mother is in the house,” was a subject of major discussion – some felt it had judgmental undertones. We live and learn and keep ourselves flexible, honoring all sensibilities.
What I’m trying to get at is that regardless of what we have in common, there is always an element of cultural interpretation informed by our environment, upbringing, and geopolitical leaning, because this has been our life, our education, and experience so far. It’s when we open up so as to receive what another person is bringing to the table that the magic happens. We don’t need to always agree with others in order to see the world from their point of view. This opens the gateway to empathy, the crux of honoring cultural diversity.