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Main Content

Strengthening Your Comfort with Differences Ability

Strengthening Your Comfort with Differences Ability

If comfort with differences is one of your strengths, you:

  • enjoy and work well with individuals who are very different from you, and who have a broad range of backgrounds and personalities

  • appreciate and are intrigued by differences, rather than finding them intimidating, confusing, anxiety-producing, or off-putting

For example, at work you have friends and colleagues who come from a variety of personal backgrounds and cultures and who don't all fit one picture in terms of their attitudes, the way they dress, or their lifestyles.

Some people feel uncomfortable with differences and are more drawn to people who are most like them. And of course, similarities and shared backgrounds can ease the "getting to know you" process and create bonds among people.

But diversity offers other, equally important benefits – in all human endeavors. For instance, if you're working on a team that comprises people with different thinking styles, work experiences, and outlooks on life, you'll likely encounter a richer array of insights than if everyone thought and lived just like you. When a team consists of people with a variety of mindsets, personalities, and work styles, the members are more likely to recognize new opportunities and come up with surprising, creative ways to solve problems.

So how do you increase your comfort and effectiveness in relating to many different types of people? Consider these ideas:

  • Read a book on embracing diversity. Potential useful titles include How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This classic resource has helped hundreds of thousands of people feel more confident in relating to a wide variety of individuals. Also check out the Carnegie Web site for information on training sessions. Another helpful title is Quick Skills: Embracing Diversity by the Career Solutions Training Group.

  • Take an online learning course on the subject. Examples include the "Working Across Difference" module offered in the Harvard ManageMentor program developed by Harvard Business School Publishing. Your company may have purchased a site license for such e-learning programs. Or, you may be able to buy a CD containing modules of interest as well as participate in them online or download them from the developer. Some developers charge a fee for participation in the courses they offer; others offer modules for free.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone who you view as particularly comfortable with interpersonal and cultural differences. Ask this person how he or she has strengthened this ability.

  • Attend a workshop or course on what diversity is and how to get comfortable with differences. Your company may offer such learning opportunities or may be willing to reimburse your tuition if you take such a course through another organization. Local university extension programs, as well as continuing education programs, may offer such workshops and courses.

  • Systematically "desensitize" yourself to interpersonal differences. Through desensitization, you'll gradually become more and more comfortable around something that previously frightened or unnerved you. Here's how it might work:

  • Think of someone you know who is very different from you in every way – in their values, background, outlook on life, way of approaching problems, etc. Now think of someone who's only slightly different from you. Then think of three individuals who fall somewhere between these two extremes. List all these people's names, putting the most different person (the one who makes you feel most uncomfortable) at the top of the list and the least different person at the bottom. Start spending more time around the person you've listed at the bottom of your list. Eventually, you'll start feeling more comfortable with him or her. Why? For some reason, we humans have an enormous capacity to get used to just about anything –simply by being around it long enough. In fact, many people have said that once they got to know someone who initially seemed disconcertingly different from them, they stopped noticing the interpersonal differences. After you've practiced getting comfortable around the person at the bottom of your list, start working your way up to the top of the list. With enough time, you'll feel much more comfortable with everyone on your list – and find yourself more comfortable with people you meet in the future. Equally important, you'll be able to collaborate more effectively on highly diverse teams at school, in your community, and on the job. Pay attention to the ways in which you are like someone else, as well as to the ways in which you're different. By getting to know others better, you start looking beneath surface differences to what makes each individual unique and interesting. If your discomfort with differences stems from extreme shyness, consider getting some counseling or joining a "shy people's" support group. Extreme shyness can severely limit you in your social and professional life. Because so much of life hinges on being able to get along well with others, you'd be doing yourself a huge favor by overcoming that shyness.

Strengthening your comfort with differences takes practice, but the results are well worth the effort. The suggestions above can help you get started.