Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Do We Learn to Appreciate Each Other's Differences?

Try these simple steps for understanding diversity.

We live in a diverse and global world. This inclusivity often brings about misunderstanding and conflict. However, the true goal of diversity is to embrace the complexities and blessings, rather than dread the change that inclusivity may bring.

People or ideas that are different than our own often create discomfort for fear of the unknown. Many companies require inclusivity workshops to assist workplace employees in better understanding the many opportunities that diversity offers. The emphasis is to move from a position of being afraid of differences to tolerating differences to appreciating the benefits of differences.

A consulting workshop we offer is called “Beyond Tolerance.” That concept is one that many of us would agree upon, but how can we move from tolerance to appreciation?

Having a clear definition is the first place to begin. However, even the word diversity has many meanings. Merriam Webster Dictionary offers this definition: “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety; especially: the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization such as programs intended to promote diversity in schools.” In reality, diversity encompasses race, religious affiliation, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and life experiences. Each of these factors may impact how diversity is understood and viewed.

There is a seminal three-stage diversity model from counseling researchers, Sue and Sue, that illustrates the diversity process. The first stage toward understanding diversity is Awareness. We must first be aware that there are individual differences, but that we are more alike than different. Then, we must be clear what our personal beliefs and values are and how those beliefs differ from others.

The second stage is Knowledge. We must obtain the necessary information and knowledge about those who are different. Another diversity expert, Dr. Jeff Kottler stated, “Have the courage to enter into the world of those you are trying to understand by learning their unique cultures, family histories, languages, customs, values, and priorities.” In other words, we need to ask others about their ideas, cultures, and rituals.

Then, the third stage is Skills. There may be specific skills that are needed to more sensitively and effectively talk with others.

However, awareness, knowledge, and skills are not enough. We must be able to put these stages into action with our consistent words and behaviors.

As we work to more conscientiously understand the issues surrounding diversity, sometimes cognitive dissonance and anxiety may occur. To understand others may make us look at our beliefs with different perspectives. That may be uncomfortable but necessary.

A favorite anecdote demonstrates how traditions and beliefs are passed down through the ages and may eventually need to be changed. It goes something like this. A newlywed couple is preparing their first Sunday afternoon dinner. It is a pot roast with tasty vegetables. The husband carefully observes his wife’s detailed preparation.

Just before placing the roast in the pan, she takes a large knife and cuts off the end of the meat. In conversation, the husband asks his wife why she cut off the end of the meat. She replies, “I don’t truly know, but my mother always does that!” The curious wife calls her mother and inquires. Her mother says, “I don’t truly know, but my mother always does that!”

Luckily for our story, the grandmother is still living! The grandmother is asked why she cuts off the end of the meat. The grandmother begins to laugh, “Honey, I cut off the end of the meat because my pan was way too little for the roast!”

How many of us have acquired our beliefs and behaviors from our own culture without looking at where and why those very beliefs originated?

Often when engaging in multicultural training, much-needed information is given, but there seem to be few “activating events” to get us out of the intellectual viewing of diversity and into the personal worldview. If we are unaware of the origins of our beliefs, then we will continue to elicit the same behaviors. Many of our prejudices, of course, come from our current worldview. When something or someone has a different belief or experience, frequently, the only way to make meaning is to enter the experience with preconceived perceptions from prior life experiences and filters. This immediate process may help in relieving the discomfort, but this meaning is often jaded and even inaccurate. If a strong reaction is observed and recognized, a four-tiered system can be utilized to organize and better understand the reaction.

First, describe what was observed. Often people react by interpreting what is assumed, not describing what was observed. Once a description of actual events is understood rather than first reacting with emotions and assumptions, the second tier can produce additional information.

The second tier introduces and describes feelings and emotions. Typically prejudices create uncomfortable, angry, and confused emotions. These feelings must be discussed to move further.

The third tier asks for a discussion of meaning. Most individuals desire immediate answers to unfamiliar events by ascribing interpretation or meaning from individual perceptual sets. This might provides more comfort and security, but again that meaning may not be accurate and needs additional knowledge. What most of us do not acknowledge or realize is that this interpretation is filtered from personal perceptual sets and frequently is not accurate for another culture or person. When participants take the risk to describe accurately what was seen, they are ready to take the next steps by asking questions about possible feelings and meanings. This assists in comprehending original emotional reactions.

Understanding differences does take additional time. If we have the courage to ask someone from a diverse setting what something means to them, then a perceptual switch begins to emerge. A new perception and understanding slowly is founded. Any discussion that can assist us to “get out of our heads and into personal belief systems” is a powerful mechanism to learn and integrate diversity into our life. These types of experiences and discussions can become catalysts for change and are a must if diversity is to be lived and acted upon.

Recently a wave of new commercials has appeared on television. During this year’s Super Bowl, several of the ads had the theme of acceptance for diversity. The Airbnb commercial sent a strong and poignant message promoting diversity and tolerance. Their statement was, “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”

Apple had a new TV commercial that said it all. It aired during the holidays. Frankenstein wanted to join in the festive spirit at the town square. He placed light bulbs on his electrical leads and began to sing, “There is no place like home for the holidays.” It scared some town folks, but a small girl began to sing with Frankenstein. Because one little girl had the courage to stretch out of her comfort zone, the entire town began to sing. Of course, Frankenstein shed tears of joy. The commercial ended with the quote, “Open your hearts to everyone!”

Opening our hearts to diversity is not always easy. I challenge readers to break out of the mold. For example, eat different foods. My husband and I just experimented with a new cauliflower recipe of roasted cauliflower, Buffalo Wild Wings Sauce with a Yogurt Blue Cheese Dip.

Lori Russell-Chapin
Roasted Cauliflower with Buffalo Wild Wings Sauce and a Yogurt Bleu Cheese Dip.
Source: Lori Russell-Chapin

It was so diverse, delectable and a definite keeper.

When going to lunch the next time, don’t sit in the same place or go to the same restaurant. Sit with different people at lunch or ask someone new for dinner. Get to know diverse people. If a committee must be created, select diverse talents and skills. Typically we choose those who look and behave like us. Designing a diverse team will offer a greater chance for creativity and healthier solutions. It will take more time to listen and suspend judgments, but the outcome will be more effective and bright. Then and only then can we truly begin to turn tolerance for others and ideas into acceptance and appreciation of diversity.

For more information, check out Bradley’s Online Master’s in Counseling.

More from Lori Russell-Chapin Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Lori Russell-Chapin Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today