Why People Who are Different than You can Make a Difference in Your Life

People are naturally discriminating. Our brains are constantly scanning the environment looking out for potential threats. A threat can be something known to us – something that has caused us harm in the past – or unknown, something new and unfamiliar. It can be easy to give in to this natural response and remain within our comfortable, safe, social bubbles. In fact, there is evidence that social diversity can lead to lack of trust, lower communication, greater perceived conflict, more concern about disrespect.

Why would we go through the work of overriding our brain’s natural response to unfamiliar (and potentially threatening) stimuli? Why would we engage in interactions with people who are different than us?

First, we know that personal growth does not happen when we remain in our comfort zone.

Second, there is evidence that diversity makes us smarter. Being in a diverse environment enhances creativity, encourages search for novel information and perspectives, and leads to better decision making and problem solving. Research has even shown that increasing gender and racial diversity in the workplace has improved financial performance for banks.

If you are ready to take the risk and build relationships with someone who might look, think or act differently than you, here are some tips (adapted from the Community Tool Box):

1. Become aware of your own culture and biases.

To become aware of your own culture, think about your multiple identities (religion, nationality, race, sexual identity, ethnicity, occupation, marital status, age, ability, geographic region).  Then consider how these identities affect how you live and perceive the world? We all carry biases and misinformation about groups of people that can come from various sources (i.e., the media, our families, etc.).

2. Risk making mistakes

If we’re going to step out and do something new, we have a guarantee that we will make mistakes. What can make a world of difference is to recognize this ahead of time. We can also be willing to make amends when miscommunication or unintended offenses come up.

3. Be willing to learn

There are many ways that we can learn about others.  Here are a few ideas:

  •  Read about or research a different culture.
  • Attend a local event.
  • Simply ask questions about another’s culture, identities, views, etc.

4. Demonstrate you care by truly listening and becoming an ally

Everyone, including you, has a story to tell. Hearing someone share his or her experiences can help us connect, despite differences, on a human level.

Becoming an ally means being willing to stick your neck out for someone else and speaking out against, or acting to stop, discrimination.

If you step outside of your social comfort zone, you may risk conflict, mistakes, and misunderstandings.  However, you may also gain personal growth, creativity, better problem-solving skills and new relationships!

For Further Reading:

Contributed by

Tamara Tatum, LMFT-Associate

Supervised by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S

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