How much do we really know about each other (and does it matter)?

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“Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, j.

Check out this map. It shows how we live in largely segregated neighborhoods:

According to a Reuters poll, about 40% of white and about 25% of non-white Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race. There are regions and groups where mixing with people of other races is more common, especially in the Hispanic community. Looking at a broader circle of acquaintances to include coworkers as well as friends and relatives, 30% of Americans are not mixing with others of a different race, the poll showed. 

Now if you find yourself in one of those poll percentages (or live in a largely segregated neighborhood), you may be – correction, ARE – missing an incredible opportunity to expand your worldview and perspective, let alone your “cultural IQ”. Shucks, if you don’t believe it, try asking the 60% of whites and 75% of non-whites (and others) who do have relationships with members of other races.

Which takes us to this fundamental question – how much do you really know about those you work with and how much do they really know about you? And the next question is, does it really matter?

Here’s an approach to begin answering these questions. You may want to have a pen and paper nearby to jot down your answers.

First, visualize the following people you interact with at work; on your team, your customers, the people you rely on internally from other organizations, etc. Now separate them on the basis of those who are different from you by one or several of these characteristics: culture, age, race, generation, religion, gender, etc.

Next, ask yourself, how much do I really know about the people I’ve visualized beyond how they show up physically? How much do they know about me?” Select one of those people and ask yourself these questions about him or her:

  1. What assumptions did I make, if any, about this person at the outset of our relationship and were those assumptions validated to be correct?
  2. What matters most to both of us in maintaining a solid work relationship? How do I know for sure?
  3. What is it that I need to know to be more competent in working with him/her?
  4. What insights have I learned from them that I would find difficult to be without today?
  5. How might this person experience the organization differently from how I experience it?
  6. What aspect of this person am I most curious about but are reluctant to inquire about?
  7. Is there congruence between how I behave in the presence of this person and how I behave when he or she is not around?
  8. Is there a “burning question” I’ve wanted to ask this person but were unwilling to? Why? What “burning question” could he/she be wanting to ask me but for some reason was unwilling to?
  9. Which of my behaviors could make me more or less effective in my relationship with him/her?
  10. What signals have I conveyed that I’d want this person in my inner circle, if in fact I do?
  11. How might what I say privately to those in my inner group about my feelings about this person affect their perceptions of this person?
  12. If I’m asked to describe this person what would my adjectives look like?
  13. What do I think she/he says about me when I’m not around?
  14. How is my relationship with her/him improving the overall effectiveness of the entire team?
  15. If I were to scan my work space – office, cubicle, lab, shop, etc., – are there things in it (pictures, books, screen savers, banners, ornaments, etc.) that could possibly make this person uncomfortable?

Questions for a thoughtful analysis

  1. Which of the above questions, if any, caused you to drift off into introspection?
  2. If you could somehow “rewind the clock” to the beginning of your relationship with this person, what would you do differently after reflecting on the questions above?
  3. Say that your relationship with this person is broken. What’s the personal and organizational cost of it staying that way? How willing are you to take the first step in getting it fixed?
  4. If you found yourself unexpectedly reporting to a person of his/her background, what issues could that raise for you? What can you do to prepare yourself for that possibility?

In the end, I believe that having authentic relationships with folks who differ from us to be immensely liberating and rewarding. In those relationships, there are no taboos, communication is open and honest, trust is the glue, you can talk about anything, and nine times out of ten you usually do.

In those relatonships the work gets done more efficiently, you both have a lot more fun doing it, and the organization becomes one where folks are at their best to do their best.

Trust me.


(c) Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, corporate story-teller, trainer and associate with Diversity Wealth based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can be reached at

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