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4.4 Cultural Strategic Thinking Techniques

The basics of developing and practicing cultural strategic thinking are to (a) connect new information to the old, (b) select the appropriate strategies, and then (c) plan, monitor, and evaluate the strategies you have put in place. This section of the chapter provides ideas that will help you to increase your cultural strategic thinking.

Peer Learning

A strategy that is often employed in the practice of cultural strategic thinking is to create peer-learningWorking with peers to question and explore cultural interactions to resolve cultural problems. opportunities to explore cultural interactions and resolve cultural problems. Doing this provides you with a language for how you process cultural interactions and problems, and your peers can help you to create that language and help solve the problems. As a leader, this is a great way of providing a model for those who have difficulty with cultural strategic thinking. It does so by sharing with them a language and a process, and by helping to point out the cultural strategic thinking pieces of the process, which can be done by asking and clarifying the situation for them. Think about it as playing cultural detective: You ask your peers questions, and they clarify the information for you, and when they ask you questions, you clarify your thinking process for them.

Writing Your Experiences

A useful tool I have used in my workshops and classes is writing down experiences and thoughts related to a cultural situation. I encourage you to write down your emotions and feelings, the ambiguities and inconsistencies, and the challenges and successes of working interculturally. Your writing serves as a reflection of your thinking processes and how you have dealt with, or how you could not deal with, the process. It also serves as a memory of your experiences, which you can later refer back to and learn from.

Gaining Cultural Knowledge

In gaining cultural knowledge, it is very helpful to get into the habit of checking your facts and knowledge about a culture. You can do this by using multiple sources and venues. If you come across a situation in which a cultural fact seems to contradict what you know, take the time to learn about the difference and the nuances related to that cultural fact. Using that cultural situation as a “Kodak moment,” take the opportunity to reread the picture to see if you really understood how that cultural fact was used. In your review of the situation, you may need to research unfamiliar terms or gestures used, or you may need to break down the picture and rebuild it, step by step, to understand if you really understood the whole picture.

Thinking, Being, and Staying Positive

Essential in cultural strategic thinking is your ability to conjure and be positive about your learning experiences. Someone who holds a negative perspective about, or who had a negative experience, working with different cultural groups will continue to have difficulty working with the groups. Negative attitudes and impressions will hinder your work. You have to think positively about a situation, and you need to be and stay positive, maintaining a positive energy and attitude throughout. I have certainly come across leaders who have attended my sessions because “leadership told them they had to,” and it affects their learning environment in a negative way and often interrupts the learning of their peers. Your ability to be a culturally intelligent leader depends on your willingness to maintain a positive attitude.

Finding a Coach or Mentor

Along the lines of processing your cultural situations out loud, it would be helpful to find a coach or mentor that can help you analyze your thinking. In cultural strategic thinking, it is important to talk about what you will do or what you have to do. Some people will talk to themselves; others find it helpful to have someone to talk to. As in peer learning, talking to someone else gives you the opportunity to break down your thinking processes.

Being an Observer

One of the best things to do in developing cultural strategic thinking is to learn to be an observer. Through observation and active listening, you pick up what you normally do not see. Observation is acquired through day-to-day activities in your life by making a conscious decision to be open and alert. Pay attention to the verbal and nonverbal cues of various situations; look around your environment and note the various symbols and artifacts. Culturally intelligent leaders must have excellent observation skills, never failing to hear and see the tangible and intangible. You can do this by reminding yourself or by setting goals centered around the following actions:

  • Listen with an open mind
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Suspend judgments of people and their beliefs
  • Ask people questions
  • Silently ask yourself questions
  • Be open to experiences that are unfamiliar

Active Listening

Active listeningThe ability of an individual to understand, interpret, reflect on, and respond to what that individual just heard. is your ability to understand, interpret, reflect, and respond to what you have heard. It is a critical skill in cultural intelligence because the behavior acknowledges that you have really heard what another person has said. Active listening focuses your mind on the speaker, and, if done repeatedly and successfully, you are able to build trust and a relationship with others. It can facilitate an effective cultural interaction with less conflict, confusion, and frustration. Practicing to be an active listener is making a conscious choice about your responses to others. Because cultural intelligence is intentional, you are also better able to regulate your emotions and feelings.

Changing Your Questions

Marilee AdamsAdams (2004). proposes that when you change your questions in any given situation, this allows you to change your thinking. There are two types of questions: questions that involve judgments and questions that involve learning. We ask both types of questions, and we choose which ones to ask in any given situation. Asking questions in a different way provides us with another perspective.

Table 4.2 Judger vs. Learner Questions

Judger Learner
What’s wrong? What works?
Who’s to blame? What am I responsible for?
How can I prove I’m right? What are the facts?
How can I protect my turf? What’s the big picture?
How can I be in control? What are my choices?
How could I lose? What’s useful about this?
How could I get hurt? What can I learn?
Why is that person so clueless and frustrating? What is the other person feeling, needing, and wanting?
Why bother? What’s possible?

Cultural strategic thinking may seem overwhelming at first, but as with any new learning, you need to break your plan into smaller steps that will help you to accomplish your goals. When you get into the habit of cultural strategic thinking, you will begin thinking on an unconscious level and not even recognize that you are using strategic thinking. You will notice it when others marvel or comment at your ability to effectively manage cultural interactions.

Earley and PetersonEarley & Peterson (2004). wrote that learning about a new culture requires putting all the pieces of a pattern together when you do not know the totality of what that whole picture should look like. Cultural strategic thinking is essential because it is this higher strategic thinking that enables you to process the new information and reinterpret it in a new situation. Cultural strategic thinking helps you to discard what you think you know and to apply new information concerning what the situation could be. By training your mind to think at a higher level, you create new maps of cultural situations, which help you to function more effectively.