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Communication Adaptability Series -- Flexibility part 2: Tolerance

Posted 7 years ago

Flexibility Part 2: Tolerance Tolerance means you’re open to acknowledging, allowing and respectful of opinions and practices that are different from your own. We can easily get images of people who are Intolerant of other people because of religious or political beliefs, or who differ in race or gender orientation. Those Intolerant folks may attract like-minded people, but they don’t get the attention of a diverse audience. Now we all grow up with stereotypes of people who are different from us. How embedded they are depends a lot on our upbringing. An early start on tolerance for differences is a great gift a parent can give to a child. But unfortunately we don’t all start out that way. Some of us have to learn tolerance and get more skillful at it. When Barbara Walker worked at Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980’s, she was the manager of international diversity. She developed a five-step training approach for the employees of DEC, which we can look at as one set of guidelines for developing greater tolerance. Her program began with a direct look at stereotypes. Every group began with an examination of their own stereotypes. I’ll try a few of the questions with you. I’ll start a sentence and you finish it with three or four descriptive adjectives. Just let the words come. Don’t try to censor them. Ready? Native Americans are… [PAUSE] African Americans are…. [PAUSE] White people are…. [PAUSE] Hispanics are… [PAUSE] Asian Americans are… [PAUSE]. People with a Texas accent are… [PAUSE] People from California are… [PAUSE] People who don’t finish high school are…. [PAUSE] People with AIDS are… [PAUSE] People who stutter are… [PAUSE] Men with long ponytails are… [PAUSE]
Did you discover that you’re holding some negative stereotypes about certain groups of people? It’s easy to see how holding negative attitudes toward people prevents you from being flexible with them. And that intolerance then extends beyond the usual stereotypes to closely held assumptions about values and ways of seeing the world.
After working to identify people’s stereotypes, Barbara Walker moves to step two, which has to do with basic assumptions. If Person A sees only one way of putting a new product together and Person B has an entirely different approach, they may be intolerant of each other. Or they may find, as Walker teaches, that it’s okay to disagree. People learn to not automatically rule out another way of looking at something. Learning to tolerate differences means that each person slows down to listen to the other. Through the process of not being afraid to disagree, people can open up a dialogue, which leads to greater creativity for everybody.
I know a useful exercise you might try when you’re engaged in a difficult conversation, called Monk’s Feedback. It goes like this: Person A states his position. Person B restates A’s position and then states her own. Person A has to restate B’s position before he goes on to reply to it, and so on. I guarantee this exercise lowers the intensity of emotional conversations and helps each side to see the other’s points.
In the third step of Walker’s work, she has the workshop participants actively search out people they feel are different from them. They must build relationships with these people and keep the differences in mind. The fourth step involves learning how to deepen one’s sense of tolerance for differences by talking about them within those relationships. People are especially encouraged to talk about how they feel victimized by those differences.
And the fifth step in Walker’s program is to come full circle back to the stereotypes of groups and talk more freely about them. But this is only after each person has created a real relationship with someone whom they regard as different. This whole process is designed to open the participants up to the value of differences and to empower them to feel comfortable enough to talk about them.
Remember that flexibility means that you’re willing to adapt your behavior. You’re less apt to do that with an intolerant attitude toward another person. Intolerance is a double-edged sword. It may keep those people you don’t like at a distance. But it isolates you within a minority group (everybody belongs to some minority; even white, heterosexual male is a minority). We’re in a world that’s increasingly recognizing the values of cultural, racial, religious, political and gender diversity.


In this 10 part series, Dr. Alessandra explores the 10 attributes of people who are highly adaptable.  Please check back each week for the next installment, or follow us on Facebook for regular blog update announcements.