Everyday Racism in Germany

Disturbing: the exceptional Chinese artist Ai Weiwei experiences racism, and even Fascism and Nazism, in his everyday life in Berlin:

“Fascism means that you put one ideology above others and declare this ideology pure by devaluing other ways of thinking”, he said. “This is Nazism. And this Nazism exists in everyday German life today.”

Now, you can put that down to a very opinionated dissident artist speaking his mind. But it is also clearly food for thought.

I found this comment by reader “Heidewachtel” enlightening:

“As a German who has lived in the USA, Belgium and France, who has travelled three quarters of the world on business, I can only agree with Ai Weiwei. Without reservation. If you live here, you only notice this Nazism of the Germans if you always pay close attention, but from the outside it is immediately noticeable. There is racism and xenophobia everywhere in the world, but this massive devaluation of other ways of thinking combined with one’s own self-assessment as pure (showing attitude) is typically German (highlight A.H.). Klaus Kleber’s “Rettet die Wahrheit” (Save the truth, a defense of the supposed lack of bias of the German press corps by a newscaster, A.H.) shows the tip of the iceberg on the subject. Extremely embarrassing when seen from outside. The protagonists are constantly celebrating themselves as great democrats. Tolerance is a strenuous exercise in this country. It is not easy for us. That’s why we fail to recognize when tolerance hits a wall and when self-interest and self-protection are required. Germans are far more uptight about this than other nationals.
As a person of Chinese ethnicity, I would also prefer London as a place to live, without thinking about it for a second.” (transl. A.H.)

There is a lot to unpack in that comment. But this comes to mind from my communication training practice:

If you don’t show me explicit respect and I think and live differently from you, I will be apt to denote that you actually disrespect me and that you consider others like me to be less valuable than you.

I often hear from German participants that they perceive indirectness in polite contact as “dishonest” and “insincere”, i.e. as “deceitful”. They tend to suspect a difference between “what is said (friendly)” and “what is thought (unfriendly)”, and they cannot stand that suspected difference. Not saying what you think is considered inauthentic, even possibly impure.

Could it be that presuming hostility to be inherent in diversity is ultimately a projection of a judgemental, pejorative attitude?

Oi vey vey!

Global dexterity

Andy Molinsky: Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. Harvard Business Review Press. 2013

So you want to be a true “citizen of the world”? You’ll need more than a knowledge of dos and don’ts in the many cultures you are moving into. There are large gaps between knowing what behavior is required of you in any given setting and situation, and being able to actually act accordingly. To sustain your role in that setting, you’ll need to be able to adapt your behavior to the context without losing your authenticity or becoming embittered by being required to adapt to imposed norms. The process can be unsettling.

To work with teams across cultures, and to lead people from other cultures, you need a key competence that Andy Molinsky calls “global dexterity”. He offers a self-coaching toolbox. At its core is his key message: Remain true to yourself. Take a holistic approach. Be successful in your own way.

The first step is to crack your own “cultural code” as well as that of your foreign environment. This means determining the prototypical behavioral and mindset considered appropriate in a given situation you must negotiate, and to compare that with how you would normally behave.

Molinsky offers the following behavioral categories:

  • how direct or indirect (degree of directness)
  • how enthusiastic or restrained (degree of enthusiasm)
  • how formal or informal (degree of formality)
  • how assertive or compliant (degree of assertiveness)
  • how self-promoting or modest (degree of self-promotion)
  • how self-revealing or private (degree of personal disclosure)

Consider the entire range of behaviors in the target culture that would be considered appropriate, defining a “zone of appropriateness”. Then consider whether any of your preferred ways of behaving would still fit within that zone.

Where this is not the case, the question inevitably arises whether you can stretch your comfort zone to overlap with the appropriateness zone of the other cultural code, to create a “new normal” for yourself in given situations. Before we look at Molinsky’s suggestions, consider the psychological challenges he identifies:

  • Can you maintain your authenticity when your personal values and convictions are in conflict with those underlying the behavior?
  • Do you have the know-how and the ability to actually execute the new behavior?
  • Do you have the strength to overcome any resentment and bitterness about having to conform?

Molinsky uses a coaching approach to help you explore this. After taking inventory and setting goals you are invited to test the new behavior gently in small experiments in a safe environment, asking familiars and mentors from the target culture for constructive feedback on your performance. Each experiment requires emotional and psychological reflection and inventory taking so that you try new behavior on for size only so far as you feel comfortable. Your aim is to integrate this behavior through new insights on a self-paced journey. So you build global dexterity much as you would develop a “muscle memory” through sports coaching. You build self-confidence as you experience your own increased efficacy.

Molinsky uses acting as a metaphor for the process. When you learn a new role, mastery does not mean that you lose other aspects of yourself. On the contrary, you are acquiring or realizing your potential, expanding your repertoire. As you learn and practice these new abilities you can look at them critically and say: “That’s not me… or not yet”.

The real challenge is making this new behavior acceptable to your old self. If you have decided that you do indeed want to try, the way is twofold: First, to seek to understand and appreciate the logic behind the behavior; secondly, to seek harmony in your shared goals. If your values remain at odds, Molinsky suggests engaging in intercultural bridge-building, i.e. attempting to integrate the logic of the foreign culture with your own to create a completely new culture.

Get a grip on yourself! Managing your involuntary emotional reactions

Who doesn’t know the fear of “losing it” during a job interview or a presentation! Due to how the brain works, we have very little influence on when and how intensely an emotion will grip us. As a rule, in a stressful situation we are “attacked” by our emotions and the thoughts that accompany them. Especially intense feelings trigger involuntary reactions.

However, we can influence how we manage our responses: We can notice which thoughts, behaviors and conditions strengthen such involuntary emotions, making us weak and unready to deal with the situation, and which ones reduce those emotions to make us strong and ready.

Conscious self-regulation entails stopping ourselves for a moment to become aware of what is going on. This moment of mindful self-perception slows down our normal automatic reactions and opens up a variety of possible ways to respond. There are numerous techniques of self-regulation:

Physical strategies

  • Get fresh air, take a walk, get rid of excess energy before the encounter
  • Feel the floor/ground beneath your feet
  • Breathe in and out deeply
  • Do an inventory of your five senses: What do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste?
  • Change your posture, stand up straight with your head up and shoulders back
  • Change your body tension, consciously tighten or relax parts of your body
  • Change your voice volume or pace

Cognitive Strategies

  • Step aside and take a look at yourself and the situation from the outside
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Create a positive image of the outcome, visualize it and anchor it with a gesture
  • Talk yourself into a good mood or outcome
  • Relate this experience to others (everything is relative)
  • Do freewriting to unburden yourself, naming and describing your feelings
  • Focus on your goals and visions rather than on yourself

Communicative strategies

  • Repeat and/or ask to check what you heard (clarifies and buys you thinking time)
  • Switch to the meta level (draw the other person’s attention to the process)
  • Express your feelings through I-messages if appropriate (draw the other person’s attention to your perspective)
  • Take a break
  • Cancel or cut short the exchange and reschedule for a later time

Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.

A Prezi to teach Cialdini’s principles of persuasion

In teaching communication skills, I’ve decided to experiment with Prezi as my presentation tool. I normally use Powerpoint to present Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion, but find that Prezi, which lets you zoom in and out, lets me put the task and reference material into one big picture. The template is one of the many very nice designs available. Prezi is free of charge if you don’t mind sharing your materials on line.

Better visuals for college presentations

Today I wrote an open letter to my Masters of Public Management students on how to improve their visuals. It included these points:

Better visuals:

To improve your design, especially your use of space on slides, select a theme that suits your purposes. Consider a clean color scheme with good contrast to suit the light conditions at the university. (I used a black gradient with white letters.) Then create a slide master, which stores information about the template (theme, a set of layouts, color scheme, fonts, placeholders for positioning). That creates harmonious slide variations on one theme, all saved in one master. When you make a new presentation, you build your slide deck by selecting from among the possible layouts, changing from slide to slide, and positioning your content in the given placeholders.

Use the graphic tools provided in your MS Office programs. Create visuals (graphic organizers, flowcharts…) using the tools in Powerpoint and Word called SmartArt. If you can’t find a chart that works for your purpose, tailor organizers using Diagrams and Tables. Save your own visuals and use them in your Prezis.

Use clipart provided by your program, if necessary, but reduce your use of clipart in your academic work. Replace those generic illustrations with authentic evidence (visualized calculations, documentation, photographs) to back up your assertions effectively.

If you need evocative photos for emotional impact or reference, use license-free photographs and document your sources to use them. I like eltpics, a searchable creative commons collection curated by English teachers around the world. https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/tags/

Better use of text

I know that “Presentation Zen” author Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate reducing text on slides. That works well for natural science presentations, which are best when you show just the evidence, and for marketing, which runs on emotions. However, in our international context, with so much potential for verbal misunderstanding, and in our academic tradition of analytical thinking, you do need some text! Include all relevant names, titles of works and conceptual keywords on your slide. Formulate your key thesis as a full sentence. Label your charts legibly, with 16 point lettering. Use the spaces suggested by your template to formulate a header for orientation, keep bullets points short (max. 6-7 lines x 6 words), or – better – label the containers you have created in your template to contrast or compare selected terms.

Present any quotes in full length and include the name of the author.

Your presentations are unique, and your teachers and peers respect and enjoy that variety. Use the ideas of Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) to assess yourself:

Is what you present

simple – have you found the core of the idea?
unexpected – do you grab people’s attention?
concrete – can it be grasped and remembered?
credible – do you speak with authority on this subject, are your methods are sound?
emotional – do you share your sense of humanity with your audience?
stories – do you take your audience on an interesting journey?