“What is right, can never be impossible!”
-Captain Sir John Lindsay, in the film Belle
Almost ten years ago I had the privilege to present at a NALP conference. I was one of four coaches speaking to a group of law firm professionals about the use of executive coaching in law firms. Attendees at the presentation were offered a 30-minute on-the-spot coaching session to get a sampling of how coaching works. As attendees entered the conference room set aside for the coaching, they could choose any available coach to engage in a session.
When Tracey West, the Associate Dean of External Relations, Diversity & Inclusion at Boston College Law School approached the conference room, she made a bee-line straight to me. She said, “I’d like you to be my coach. Is that okay?” I welcomed Tracey and we went to find a quiet place to sit and talk. Before we started the coaching session, Tracey told me, “I really enjoyed your section of the presentation, and I knew right away I wanted to work with you. Look. I even wrote in my notes, “the engaging black coach.” I smiled, looked at her notes, felt very humbled as Tracey described me as “engaging”, and then looked at Tracey and said, “You think I’m black?” And she nodded and smiled while saying “Yes.” I immediately asked Tracey, “Are you?” Tracey said “of course.” And I said, “Wow, I thought you were white...and by the way, I’m not black, I’m white.” We both roared with laughter at how wrong we both were, however, it led to a great conversation and an even better professional and personal relationship.
So other than laugh, what did we do next? We did what lots of mothers do and showed each other pictures of our kids and commented on their color too. My white son looked darker than her black children. We laughed. And then I showed her my daughter with fair skin, blond hair and green eyes and we laughed again about the unpredictability of genes. Our curiosity about each other, our cultures, backgrounds and life experiences provided the stage for candid, respectful and open communication. Since we approached each other with curiosity, a safe space for genuine and candid conversation developed. I asked Tracey about being a black woman in America today and Tracey inquired about my ethnic and religious background as an Ashkenazi Jew.
Commonalities were easy to find: as professionals, mothers, spouses and proud Americans. Likewise, we were both interested in learning and development, so there was plenty to talk about. Being curious about our differences with a healthy respect for each other has given us both many teachable moments, particularly when societal pressures may threaten to inhibit individual dialogues.
I see echoes of our interactions in the 2013 film Belle. Based on the real-life events, the film concerns the relationship between the title character, a mixed-race girl and her white cousin who were raised as equals among the nobility in 18th century England. After Belle’s West Indian mother dies, her English father, Captain Sir John Lindsay is forced to leave his child with his unenthusiastic aunt and uncle, the Mansfields, in order to perform his military duties. It turns out the Mansfields’ daughter Elizabeth is the same age, and the two cousins develop a friendship they navigate into adulthood despite being overshadowed by the politics of race and class culture in their time.
The Curiosity Ladder
Adi Ignatius references recent research in the Harvard Business Review article, “Cultivate Curiosity.” The author notes: “Curiosity improves decision making because it reduces our susceptibility to stereotypes and to confirmation bias; it fuels employee engagement and collaboration; and it fortifies organizational resilience by prompting creative problem solving in the face of uncertainty and pressure. In short, curiosity boosts business performance.” Ignatius’s conclusion supports the argument for curiosity.
Judging → Understanding → Respecting → Appreciating → Valuing Differences*
Choosing curiosity as the tool to use when encountering someone different from ourselves provides the platform for understanding. Think of it this way: as humans, we climb to the first rung of the curiosity ladder when someone is different from us. This rung is called “Judging.” And the behavior of judging one another can cause conflict. If we choose to rise on the curiosity ladder, the next rung is “Understanding.” On this rung we can choose to practice curiosity and inquire and ask questions to understand. If we choose to go higher, we can move to the next rung of the ladder, “Respecting” and demonstrate respect for each other’s differences. From there we can strive to go higher and “Appreciating” each other’s differences. The highest rung of the ladder is one level higher: that of “Valuing” our differences. As we reach the height of “Valuing Differences” we are so far away from judging, we can instead choose to value the unique and exquisite differences our friends and colleagues bring to our work and our lives.
Perhaps when the majority of us get there, we will have transformed society! I remain hopeful our society can get there as a whole. The clip “Soul Sisters,” from a 2017 episode of CBS Sunday Morning shows us why. It profiles Miami preschoolers Jia Sarnicola and Zuri Copeland who say they are closer than best friends, closer than sisters, even. In fact, Jia and Zuri truly believe they’re twins - not because they share the same skin color (they don’t), but because they share the same soul.
*Based on DiSC® Classic, ©2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. “DiSC” and “Wiley” are registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.