I have been fortunate to join professional and social or recreational groups as a way to balance education or work with the other important aspects of life, improve the quality of my life, and serve the community I live in. I have volunteered and also held leadership positions in these groups. One day, it dawned on me that I should form a group and reach out to those who were interested in engaging more closely with diversity by learning about people and their cultures. This is one of the reasons I started the Regina Cross Cultural Sharing Circle.
Since I had not done something like this before, I was uncertain how it would turn out. After almost two years, I am happy to say the investment and experience have been worth it, and I am excited to share my version of a sharing circle with organizations as a learning and development tool for fostering diversity and inclusion. The following question and answer format contains a straightforward profile of this tool.
What is the Regina Cross Cultural Sharing Circle?
It’s a kind of peer mentoring group. The word “peer” means that everyone in the group is on the same level – everyone is a mentor. No one is more of an expert on the topic than another, because there is no hierarchy among peers. The word “mentor” means that each person shares her or his knowledge, experiences or stories, wisdom, and perspective on the topic as a way of teaching others, increasing their exposure to new and multiple perspectives, and encouraging reflection.
Why the term, “cross cultural”?
Everyone has a culture even if they don’t think they do. Surprisingly, some people may not be aware of it, but everyone has been socialized by their parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, etc. to adopt certain values, principles, beliefs, and practices or customs, and to behave in a certain way. In this sharing circle, the mentors share a perspective based on their interpretation of the principles, values and beliefs in which they were raised and that are a part of their identity. The term “cross” is used because the cultural perspective shared by each person in a group setting is different and unique. “Intercultural” is also appropriate except that it may sound like a one to one interaction rather than a group of people sharing.
What makes this sharing circle different from other speaking groups or expert panels?
First, the difference is in the approach or mindset of the sharing circle. In the circle, the mentors are not expected to convince others of their opinions, or a position, or argument. The sharing circle is not an occasion or platform for debate or discussion. I say to the mentors at the start of the session, “Check your ego at the door!” and I credit this idea to the instructor of a yoga class I took many years ago whose name I cannot remember, unfortunately. I thought at the time it was a strange request until I got onto my yoga mat and realized that the yoga poses were challenging. It required humility to adopt the poses since I was not familiar with them, or the poses were awkward, or my body needed to develop more flexibility which, of course, was one of the goals of the class.
Furthermore, in the Regina Cross Cultural Sharing Circle, instead of focusing on the ego, the focus is on listening and developing empathy or trying to see the topic from another person’s perspective. Another way to describe this activity is learning to shift one’s perspective and mindset. The sharing circle is thus a way of practicing the art of suspending judgement of others. This is achieved, hopefully, by laying down one simple rule: that when the mentors express themselves in the circle, they refrain from making negative comments or criticizing or judging other cultures, individuals, or groups from the perspective of their culture, namely their expectations, norms, standards, and values.
Last, but not least, as a leadership coach, I prepare questions that will engage the mentors with the topic and help them to develop self-awareness as they are learning about other cultures. This method makes it conducive for group coaching to take place later, in the case of organizational development, especially if there is a goal to achieve and challenges to overcome. Of course, developing self-awareness is only an early stage of learning and development in building inclusive attitudes, knowledge, and skills or intercultural competence, but it lays a strong foundation for success.
What have you learned so far from the sharing circle?
I have learned several valuable lessons, but, first, let me establish the context in which the sharing circle operates. The sharing circle is part of a diverse context where there appears to be a dominant culture and many minority cultures. Based on my understanding, the dominant culture has developed several strategies for accessing and competing for economic resources such as jobs and salaries, social status, and social or professional networks. One of these strategies is self-promotion. This strategy manifests itself in various forms such as the need to exude confidence, ask questions, discuss ideas, express opinions, emphasize strengths, or speak well publicly, etc. In such a context, it may be quite challenging for some who are highly adept at this strategy to modify their habits and adopt an attitude of cultural humility and non-judgement, and practice the skills of active listening, curiosity about other ways of doing things, and flexible thinking.
In order to build inclusion out of diversity, however, this kind of learning and development is necessary, and it takes time and practice to accomplish this goal. In addition, no real or authentic learning can happen without humility. It is from a position of humility that we start to understand ourselves, grow and flourish. At least, that is how I look at it.
To answer the question, these are some of the lessons I have learned from the sharing circle:
People experience a sense of catharsis. They have an opportunity to express themselves without the pressure of convincing anyone of their viewpoint – what a relief! They have an opportunity to talk about something that matters to them and that they do not often have the chance to talk about. This is because culture is not a common subject of conversation in our every day lives at work or at home. It tends to be taken for granted, ignored, neglected, or diminished. Moreover, culture is commonly promoted and celebrated at cultural events and fundraisers in the objective sense where people may enjoy the tangible aspects of a culture: food and drink, music, dance, etc. without learning much about or understanding the subjective or invisible aspects: the values and beliefs that underpin certain customs and practices.
People are willing to be vulnerable. They are willing to take a certain amount of risk, open up and share information or insights they may otherwise not share if they thought they would be judged. In other words, they feel a certain sense of safety, but they are also courageous, because it takes courage to share both one’s perspective and emotions. On the other hand, it can be liberating to show or express emotions that, in the dominant culture, may be perceived as signs of weakness, deficiency, impropriety or illness.
People are an amazing source of knowledge both in breadth and depth. Everyone seems to have a well of experiences to draw from. Everyone’s story or perspective is fascinating. Everyone adds value to the group. I have been delighted and enthralled every time by what I have heard. This has made it a beneficial experience for me and provides an incentive to continue to host and facilitate the sharing circle.
Why do you call this sharing circle “a model for learning and development in diversity and inclusion”?
It is my hope that the experience I have shared in this post will encourage organizations to adopt the Regina Cross Cultural Sharing Circle as a tool for leadership teams to begin to develop the attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary for building and leading inclusive organizations. It is also a flexible tool that can be modified to the needs of the organization.
What should organizations do if they are interested in utilizing the Regina Cross Cultural Sharing Circle?
They should send me a message so that we can have a conversation about it. They can contact me at: [email protected] . Interested parties can also find more information about this peer mentoring group, including information on the next session, on this website under “Services”.