Tag Archives: cross cultural strategies

Encoding a Better Future

The Early DaysI began my  career as a software programmer at IBM. With a mathematics degree and just enough computer science classes from University of Wisconsin, I was chosen to write support tools for a new Federal Aviation Administration computer system. Thirty years ago, we coded in Ada on a main frame computer and would have to wait so long for a program to compile that I knit sweaters while I waited.

I continued in this world for the next 12 years, soon moving into program management (I am way  too extroverted to be a coder) and supported the release of healthcare software, including one of the first Hospital Electronic Medical Records programs.

Today, meanwhile, I have been considering how our belief systems affect our perception of reality. I witness students whose personal stories determine their success or self sabotage. I ache for young people who believe that they don’t deserve happiness or kindness. I see others, in contrast, who are wired for success. I will not be the first to call our stories “software of the mind,”  but am struck how our internal beliefs take in the data around us and spit back whatever results we seem programmed to expect.

As a program manager and as a coder, I lived in constant fear of severity 1 errors. When you release software for testing or to the public, when a program breaks, the error is given a severity level of 4, 3, 2 or 1. A severity level 4 (“sev 4”) error is a cosmetic fix that is rarely  resolved or maybe you would work on it during  the days when only you  had to work since we were a newbie you had long used up your vacation. Sev 3’s were more important, but didn’t affect overall operations and Sev 2’s had a work around, but were serious enough that you’d need to work a night or weekend to resolve. Sev 1’s took down the system and you weren’t going anywhere until they were fixed, especially if the software was out in the field.

I have applying this same error designation to my internal software and conflicts that affect my system. My brain seems to perceive most challenges as Sev 3 or  4 errors and if I have time to reflect on a lazy day, I might refine my belief systems a bit to incorporate.

Really surprising news I seem to log as Sev 2 errors and respond by heading to a journal, a wise friend or counselor to suss where I now stand.  I have had some Sev 1’s in my own mental software where life shocks have stopped me in my tracks and notice that I use those moments mark the end of an old identity and emergence of a new me.

Some times we as the coders would negotiate severity levels with clients when they identified an error. What seemed cosmetic to us would be considered critical to them. Playing with this analogy, I wonder when and why we incorrectly log the error severity levels within our mind software? Angeles Arrien would caution to pay attention when we might normalize the abnormal or abnormalize the normal. When do I engage in denial or overdramatize? Looking through a conflict resolution lens, where am I missing discord and not appropriately engaging in the change process? Or, where am I getting stuck in a victim stance or overwhelm needlessly?

I return to the Art of War for guidance here. When discord occurs, we are counseled to step onto the battlefield like a Sage Commander and survey where we stand. Objectively assess, who are my opponents? What resources do I have at my disposal? What does this battlefield look like and what might I be missing?  What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Returning to the software analogy, how can I be a sage customer service representative who listens carefully to a problem as it is described and be willing to return to my belief system coding team and calmly explain where we might need to do some updating?

May you find each problem that arises as an opportunity to create the best darn mind software available. You’ve got a large market waiting; we could use your help in processing the data we receive daily from these polemic times.

Cues and clues

In February I spent a wonderful week in Istanbul, courtesy of the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative. I attended a reunion with 120 bright, burgeoning student leaders from throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, 19 of whom had also spent 5 weeks with us at Montana State University the summer before.

Blue Mosque of IstanbulMy colleague Janelle and I traveled 20 some hours to the city center to begin our Turkey visit. Bleary but excited, we started in a tiny boutique hotel near the famous Blue Mosque so we could walk to it and some of the surrounding cultural wonders of the world. This also assured that we would hear a call to prayer five times a day as we visited the sites, including at sunrise. Listening to this Islamic ritual is a fun feature of old town Istanbul.

I was putting clothes away in the hotel room as I heard the “call” as the sun set. I learned that on a minaret 50 feet from my window there was a speaker that blasted the call loud, loud, loud and clear. Instead being filled with gratitude I was in Istanbul, I went to panic. You know when you are so exhausted that you’d consider giving a tooth to get some sleep? Well, all I could think of was, “This is going to happen again at 5:50 am and I still needed to eat dinner and I won’t go to bed until 9 or 10 and then I am going to get jarred awake at 5 and then I won’t go back to sleep and then I will spend my first full day crying and OMG that bed in my room looks so inviting”…and, and, and…you know the drill.

The view out the hotel window

The view out the hotel window

The sun rose the next morning with that dreaded call. I came to realize though that the chant actually ricochets around the city. Callers could be heard in the distance and our loudspeaker singing friend very periodically would then seem to reply. I did grab enough shut eye to survive and what started out as a source of anxiety, became a favorite component of my time in the city.

We get busy. We get distracted and miss important aspects of a problem or of our lives.  Cues are useful tools to help us be present and available as leaders, friends and family members. The calls to prayer are reminders to stop, pay attention and give thanks.

We can use all sorts of cues to remind us to show up in our own lives, and for those around us. A wise Buddhist friend has a chiming clock at home that no longer keeps time. Without warning, at 3:06 or 12:49 for example, it will mark time with one to twelve bongs. She loves this clock because it is her ingrained cue to stop whatever she is doing, breathe and assure that she is in the present moment. This once perplexing event has become a welcome practice when I visit.

When conflict strikes, I notice there are words or actions that cue me to recenter. Hearing “you are wrong,” after years of mediating calls me to breathe deeply and go into my conflict readiness stance. I have conditioned myself to ask, “Tell me more…” and I get very aware of my surroundings. The cue that there is conflict gets me very interested in looking for the clues for its source.

What cues can you use each day to bring you back to the present? Is it your watch beeping each hour? Or can you create a persistent cue, like another asking, “How are you?” to bring you back home?

Remembering our Roots

A mere thirty years ago, I spent a semester at El Tecnológico de Monterrey as an exchange student. I lived in the dorm with a wonderful roommate from Chihuahua, watched telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) and even was a college athlete. “El Tec” was probably one of the few locations in North America where the coach wouldn’t double over in giggles while clocking my splits. They needed another female willing to run the 3K event back then so I fit the bill!

El Tecnológico en Torreón

This past weekend, I reran this memory lane while getting to teach dialogue to Tec students in the town of Torreón during their annual leadership conference. I was transported back as I overheard students talking of movies and majors and hearing cheers as students represented proudly their respective states. I basked in typically fabulous Mexican hospitality and was young again.

But all was not the same. My husband will not be pleased to know that as I jogged around campus for old times sake while black-clad police men with machine guns watched me and fellow runners from a nearby hospital rooftop. We learned that a gang-related altercation had criminals in recovering in that building and a dozen police, some in face masks, were stationed there on high alert. And Monterrey of the state Nuevo Leon, a once sleepy town where I safely ran in its surrounding hills with my fellow track mates, is now nicknamed “Monterror de Nuevo Miedo (Fear).”

While waiting for buses loaded with 130+ students in the vineyard-rich town of Parras, I stared out a car window at a lush grove surrounded by a concrete wall. Suddenly a single thirty-foot tall tree you see on the corner in the photo below began to quickly shake making the leaves blur. Is there a wind storm? No, it was completely calm and just one tree moved. Earthquake? That didn’t make sense, and I felt that disorienting feeling that came on most clearly when I watched the smoke coming out of the World Trade Tower after the first plane had entered. I couldn’t find a contextual framework. “Can not process…can not process,” my brain stuttered watching that tree.

Trees in Parras

A fellow passenger came to my aid – “That’s a nut tree. To harvest nuts, they have attached a band around the tree’s base, attach a motor that shakes the fruit free.”

The tree incident became a metaphor through the weekend. As we dialogued informally and with the students in groups, we all seemed to be wrestling with how the country could have been shaken so quickly and thoroughly. I heard stories of friends who now dive under tables in restaurants when hearing loud noises. 19 and 20 year olds lamented how children now can’t play outside as they had. This is not the Mexico of my young adulthood, or even the one I last visited five years ago.

Like my fellow car mate who gave me a nut harvest tutorial, leaders often appear to reorient us. They can provide a great service as they provide a greater context. However, these are vulnerable times when we are hungry for answers and thus willing to abdicate personal agency – e.g. post WWI Germany and Hitler’s success.

The leadership’s responsibility is at its heaviest when called to reorient others, whatever the circumstances. We must consider in these circumstances, how can I be careful with my communications when in care of another’s reality? Are the statistics I am using are truly facts? Is my answer empowering or enslaving another?

Dialogue in action

At the end of the conference, we listened to a well-known Mexican political analyst Dr. Denise Dresser. I hear “call to action” speeches often as a professor and consultant, and hers was one of the best I have witnessed.

As she “called things by their true names,” she described a country controlled by monopolies and oligopolies. She provided data on the lack of consumer choice in basic areas of phone, energy, food and media. The facts were bleak and at times overwhelming.

After her compelling painting of Mexico’s present, Dr. Dresser had a choice. Once described, Dresser had the opportunity to call forth more fear and hopelessness and for us to follow her advice. But instead, she took a positive assets-based approach and used three leadership techniques. (You can read an article similar to the given presentation here)

1) Share what is workingDresser reminded her audience of the enduring Mexican culture is with a litany of its unique gifts. This is a country of riches that are not just found in natural resources. She had me at “los libros de Elena Poniatowska” and “mangos con chile,” and, teary with nostalgia by “visiting any town’s central plaza on a Sunday afternoon.” Mexico snuggled into a corner of my heart when I was a teenager and has never left.

2) Articulate an empowering vision – In a call to action, Dresser developed a future of possibility. She spoke of Mexico containing options for both a consumer and the voter. Dresser then shared how the government is paid for by the people and each can call for transparency and accountability.

3) Believe in the Whole — When asked why she didn’t run for office, Dr. Dresser, who preferred to be called Denise, responded she wanted to stand at the side of the people. She didn’t want to leave that position, and encouraged us to look for creative solutions to resolve these issues. She believes in the whole. The organizers of the Tec leadership conference mirrored this belief as they trained the students in dialogue. They then encouraged the  participants to create circles of interested students across the country to consider deeply the tough issues confronting not only Mexico but also the world.

I left Mexico heartened by those I met and the dialogue I witnessed. These are tough times, but after meeting the students and staff, these are also outstanding individuals empowered to look for solutions. It was a call for me to keep asking: How are my words stopping fear’s motor and reminding others of their healthy roots? How can I keep aligning with the best and the greater whole to bring innovative solutions into form? And to keep cheering…Go Tec!

 

TEDxBozeman Video is Available

Per your many requests, please find my March 23rd Tedx Talk below! It is also available on YouTube under the Tedx Channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEAzWD3038Y .

Thank you for your kind and enduring support, Deidre

Do or D.I.E.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share leadership skills with nineteen international English teachers who are visiting on a State Department fellowship. Part of the program includes internships in our area schools. In my workshop we were uncovering the culture of a local high school.

Teacher after teacher shared surprises the school had held in their first visit. “The hallways are so quiet,” “Do you know that everyone chews gum, even the teachers?” and “Your students eat in during class!”

Some of this was news to this mother of past and present high school students, and it begged a brief tutorial on the D.I.E. cultural model as we all grappled with what all this information meant. Tracking the history of D.I.E., or the Describe, Interpret and Evaluate model, it appears that it was originally posited as an approach to art criticism. Briefly this is a 3 to 4-staged strategy where you notice:

  • What are you seeing (Describe),
  • What does it make you think (Interpret) and
  • What are you then concluding and do you know it to be true (Evaluate and/or Theorize)?

Recently, this model has been applied to foster intercultural sensitivity. Example,  A man is eating lunch using his fingers instead of cutlery, chewing with his mouth open and belching loudly (Describing the scene). I might think, “I wonder if he is American?” or “Does he know that this behavior is culturally off here?” or “That is definitely not attractive by American standards.” I might then start making assumptions about the individual and his cultural competencies.

Checking my work while I then evaluate my assumptions and interpretation of the situation wakes me up to where I am overlaying my own cultural frameworks and stereotypes and where I might be completely wrong.

So, returning to the international teacher cohort, after describing their visits, we then noticed assumptions were we each making on chewing gum or eating in the classrooms. Could we draw the conclusion that these unique activities created quieter hallways? Did it make better or worse students? The exercise drove home for me once more how quickly I zip from description right into interpretation and forget to evaluate too often.

Case in point. I sat down to dinner near Valentine’s day with friends and posed a timely icebreaking question, “What is something that you love?”  A reply included a description of how fortunate one of us felt to be supporting his organization through bankruptcy and negotiations with creditors. “I feel really lucky to get to engage in this level of problem solving,” he added. If I had described to you all on his plate, I wonder if your interpretation might be closer to my “wow, that sure sounds miserable.”  Meanwhile, his interpretation of the situation has a highlight of my evening. I loved seeing another modeling the possibility in seeing challenges or conflicts as gifts. I also loved how he proved my lack of “die” reasoning “dead” wrong.

A practice session for breaking down my thought processes into 3 distinct stages came in the form of taking my daughter on some eastern college visits over Presidents’ Day weekend. We’d arrive at a school and how quickly I noticed that I wanted to decide if it would be good/bad for her! Maybe it was because I was woefully underdressed for the humid cold, but I was a hindrance to my daughter’s experience anytime I started to jump to conclusions. So instead, I tried to use the hour-long tours around campus to notice details instead. What was fascinating is, when I was paying attention, how much description would be devoted not to faculty capabilities or dorm room dimensions, but to my own emotional landscape as I practiced visualizing our youngest daughter off at university.

So, I pass along this as a leadership exercise for us all to practice this week. Pick an attention grabbing situation and:

  • Describe the scene
  • What assumptions are making, what thoughts are arising?
  • Evaluate — what can you guarantee from your assessment might be true? Could I assess this completely differently?

Just as we couldn’t determine the influence of gum chewing or I couldn’t suss out if a college was truly right for my daughter, we have some room to also choose our interpretations.  Watching the inspirational effects of my friend choosing to see turmoil at work as a fascinating opportunity, perhaps since we don’t know, shall we add the brave assumption of “this is great,” while breaking down our experience? As I interpret all of this, it seems worth a try!