How do we build trust across cultural divides? USIP’s Leanne Erdberg Steadman has spent years seeking trust across the most painful of chasms—with former violent extremists in the Middle East and Africa. She shares a story of what she’s learned.
How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.
I’m David Yang, this is Culturally Attuned, and today we’re going to talk a bit about transformation. When people talk about being in a new place or a new culture, the word they use a lot is “adapt.” They adapt to the customs, they adapt to the food, they adapt to the lifestyle.
But Leanne Erdberg makes a compelling case that to find your place in a new culture, you don’t need to adapt, you need to transform. Leanne would know. A counterterrorism expert who worked on the staff of the White House National Security Council, she’s traveled to places that most people couldn’t point to on a map.
Today we’ll join Leanne as she talks about transforming fear into curiosity, expectations into patience or even a simple meal into an opportunity to learn.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman
So one of my earliest trips when I used to work for the State Department was a trip to Yemen and because this is a podcast, I should share that I have bright red hair. And it's integral to the story because we were in the souk. I was trying to understand a little bit more of where we were in between lots of diplomatic meetings in buildings and we were in the souk. And I was shopping around with a couple of my colleagues from the State Department, as well as some of our partners that were community members in Yemen. And all of a sudden I had bent down to look at some sort of scarf and I feel a giant tug on the back of my hair. And my first reaction was to try and scream but I didn't because we were in a foreign place and I didn't … and I turned around and there was a young boy, who he himself was so excited.
And I couldn't figure out why he had pulled my hair. And so I asked my colleague who was Yemeni like please ask him like why did he pull my hair. And this young boy was talking a mile a minute in Arabic. So the translation was quite difficult at the time to say that he had never seen hair that color. And he just wanted to touch it and figure out if it was real. And it was one of those moments for me that I felt like a fish out of water one, because I was a woman without covering over my hair, so I think that that was probably part of it as well and then the color of my hair as well. And it took me a minute to get out of the fear mentality and into just the joyful curiosity of a young child seeing something for the first time. And moving into that space from fear toward curiosity has been a lesson very early in my career and it has been a lesson to try and embrace that in as many situations as possible.
Leanne discusses how her work often connects her with people who have committed acts of violence and how she has been able to approach such encounters in a productive way.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman
I think moving from fear to curiosity in the field that I have focused on and violent extremism and terrorism has been a long journey. Because the level of trust that you would have to have in order to believe that somebody who formerly had very violent behaviors and beliefs no longer has them, you end up trying to find as many ways as possible to believe that they no longer intend harm. A lot of those ways end up coming through the criminal justice sector somebody has served time or gone through a rehabilitation program or something like that. What I noticed in some of my early work with those who had defected from violent extremist groups, particularly a couple places in Africa, where I had traveled was that you had to extend the trust a little earlier in your verification process in order to actually then be able to verify yourself and get the … I'm not sure that I ever fully quiet my own fear, but I try and keep it as internal as possible while extending that curiosity. And what that has yielded was relationships with people who were formerly part of violent extremist groups. And they're willing to tell you their story the way in which they have adopted what we see as you know very violent behaviors, very violent attitudes, and they just want to be able to tell you why in a way in which I wouldn't have assumed at least and this is just a handful of anecdotes. But I was constantly surprised at people's willingness to talk about why they joined and then why they left. And I would have never had access to that type of information had I've not been able to quiet my own fears about dealing with somebody who was formerly part of a very hateful organization.
In our work we often face risk, whether it is the threat of physical harm, or the potential to make a cultural misstep. We asked Leanne what suggestions she had for managing fear as well as her go-to strategies for developing trust.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman
One of the biggest things that I've learned is listening and then listening and then listening a little bit more. I have found that like the cultural fabric that we have here in the United States sometimes really puts supremacy on speaking and being the one to throw the idea out on the table and be able to claim credit for it. And what I've noticed in a lot of cross cultural and intercultural context is that it is much more important to be doing the listening than it is to be doing the talking. And so that's something that doesn't come naturally to me based on a little bit of loud mouthedness that I've had my entire life. But nonetheless I think that being able to listen, listen for some of the implicit messages that people where they want to be asked further about things that they wouldn't otherwise come to the table with. I have found that to be something that has served me time and time again.
The other thing I would say is like the situation matters. And so I think that we put a primacy sometimes in our own culture here on more formalized meetings in across the table from one another, having a very formal back and forth. And what I've noticed in many of my travels and cross cultural situations is sometimes the across the table ends up being a lot less influential as some of the conversations that happen over meals or in more relaxed settings and also over longer periods of time. And so the primacy of a one hour meeting is perhaps lost very quickly and how to spend a lot more time recognizing that the value that you're getting for that time spent is very different than some of our norms back in Washington DC.
So I have … I like food a lot. And I think that that helps because when you like food you can spend a lot of time eating with people. And I have found and it is open and available to so many different people is finding the time to share meals, to share stories about food, to understand why people want to be serving certain foods and not others. And I have found that that as being a real shortcut so to speak in terms of using the time and building that rapport within cross cultural situations. I think it actually works really well at home as well. The longer the meal the better the conversation is my rule of thumb and trying to figure out more and more ways to do that.
I think there's also a lot that is unstated about the food that people eat. And so you can learn a lot about somebody's religion based on the food that they eat, you can learn a lot about what are the local farming practices and what are the local livestock availability and the ways in which we understand fisheries. A lot of this can be implicit in the food that is able to be shared. And I think that sometimes you'll end up talking about what is the flatware, the plates and the pottery and the variety of different vehicles for food, the tablecloths and the like. And so I think that there's a way in which you start to become better attuned to what sometimes here in the United States is the surroundings or the fuel and you actually spend time on the food itself as being a real rapport builder in my experience.
Even the most culturally savvy people can stumble, despite their best intentions. Leanne shares about a time she felt out of her element, and struggled to genuinely connect.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman
So I grew up in Miami, Florida which is a very multicultural city here in the United States. My father is not from the US although now a US citizen. He's actually a dual citizen; English is his sixth language that he learned. And multiple languages always spoke in my house at home as well as at school. And so I felt that given my upbringing that I was you know relatively culturally competent from a multicultural perspective. What I perhaps didn't realize was I was only culturally competent for a couple different cultures. And so I had an extreme incident of self-awareness my first trip to Nigeria.
I was so excited to go to Nigeria. I had been studying it for some time throughout my career and it was my first actual trip there. And some of the self-awareness moments that happened there was there is so many sights, sounds, smells, every single one of your senses is just completely flooded with both some of the most beautiful things as well as some of the things that seem very loud and difficult to comprehend. And I spent a little bit of time on a multi-city tour of Nigeria in a slum for the first time in my life. And I had spent not just going through a tour of it as some diplomatic practices may have been, but we actually spent several hours trying to understand more of what the community members in the slum were really feeling in a part of Nigeria’s south.
And I found myself unprepared for what I had thought I was pretty cross culturally attuned to not be able to ask the right questions that would create those meaningful bonds. It felt … it felt like I was asking them things that they had no ability to answer when I was trying to find out about the community organization that they led and what they needed the most from outside actors, and how we could really empower their work. And the answers were like we don't need anything, thank you for coming, please leave. And I found myself unable to build some of those bonds. And I had thought that I would be, you know, pretty competent at it. And that was a moment of humility to realize that you would have to work a little bit harder to create trust where perhaps there was going to be none.
And thinking that it would come easy, just from an appreciation of multiculturality is different than actually a one to one or you know group to group basis being able to build some of those bonds of trust and actually stay there. What I found in that particular incident was I never was able to build the trust in just a few hours. But what it left with me was that others who were living there on the ground were able to do that over time. And so I ended up meeting founders of an NGO when Americans who were then living in Nigeria later that evening and hearing much more about the community that we were in. And understanding all of the very legitimate reasons why that trust would be so broken from the ways in which their dignities had been assaulted for a variety of structural as well as non-structural efforts.
I guess my overall lesson of self-awareness there was it doesn't always come easy. And even in the places where you expect to be that some of your efforts will be well received, they may not be.
I think I presuppose too early on that they needed the type of help that I was there to give. And where I think that it would have just been a much smoother and smarter relationship building to just try and get to know them and get to know their work and not come in trying to be helpful. And I think that gets back to one of the earlier conversations about time spent. If I would have had more than a few hours and I wasn't you know intending to do something and prove my worth for taking that meeting at that time on those specific topics. And instead saw this as you know a much longer term partnership which again eventual colleagues were able to show me that way. But I think that that would have helped really early on the outset is having a much longer time horizon as well as much more self-awareness that my role was not to come in with real set agenda and specific objectives but really just build those bonds of trust early.
If we come from a society that values achievements, we’ll need to adjust our behavior and communication style when working with more process-oriented cultures.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman
I think that being task oriented, being able to show your value proposition or your measures of effectiveness or the ways in which you can be very tactically evaluative of different efforts, it is a currency within policy circles here in Washington, DC but I also think it's a broader societal mechanism. I was recently listening to a podcast with Alice Waters, famous cooking chef of Chez Pannise and she was talking about when she started her restaurant in the 1970s and how the entire effort was not at all about making money. And it was such an antithetical way of thinking about starting a business is not about making money. And I feel and in policy circles, such an antithetical way about seeing a challenge and not being -- not wanting to ‘solution it’ is very, very difficult.
But I think that there are … there are moments in your cross cultural communication where you see that the solution is the process, and it's not tasks in and of itself. And so those … you know those bonds of trust, the unleashing of the creativity of others through the empowerment that you can give to them rather than telling them what to do can have much larger impacts than any of perhaps some of the more pre-designed logical frameworks that have dominated a lot of our field. But I do see progress in peacebuilding particularly recognizing that peacebuilding is life's work not projects work. And I think that that helps when you internalize that as a peacebuilder regardless of culture you're able to communicate on that vector throughout multiple cultures.
Listening with genuine curiosity helps to build more harmonious connections with people of different cultures. And the ability to manage your fears and suspend judgment are integral to working across cultures. One needs to invest time in discovering the perceptions, beliefs and values of those in other cultures. That process of discovery requires finding ways as an outsider to earn the trust of others. Leanne notes that building relationships is often the foundation for such trust. Building relationships helps us adapt to the differences in values and perceptions that arise in different intercultural situations.
How have you transcended your own fears when encountering new and uncertain situations, particularly in a different culture when your assumptions have been flipped?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed; Jeffrey Helsing, Ph.D.; Kye Horton; Justine Ickes; Stuart Mangrum; Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang