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'Developmental' approach brings more to journey into diversity

Coming from mono-cultural roots in an Iowa community on the Mississippi River and entering the larger world as a “big, white, male of German heritage” fueled Dan Distelhorst’s interest in “intercultural sensitivity.”

That term is a shift in emphasis from “diversity training” in the 1990s that sometimes left him and other white men feeling guilty, alienated and defensive, rather than open to learning, he said.

Dan Distelhorst

Dan Distelhorst

His initial exposure to racial, cultural and religious diversity in the Air Force and with Xerox—in Hawaii, Florida, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and then Spokane—led him to evolve from management training to organizational development to education for “intercultural competence.”

The goal of the intercultural approach is to move participants along a developmental scale in how they react to difference—from denial to defensiveness to minimization to acceptance to adaptation to integration.

“We previously focused just on changing bigots to give up bigotry until we realized that most people are relatively decent people who developmentally may still be defensive or who may minimize cultural and racial differences—the case for 68 percent of people,” he said.

“Moving the majority from minimizing to accepting is a more useful approach than focusing on fewer outright bigots,” said Dan.

Intercultural competence starts with the premise that everyone has a “multifaceted cultural identity, so every interaction is an intercultural interaction.  The only difference is the degree of difference,” he explained.

As someone from the dominant culture, Dan finds teaching intercultural workshops more effective if he partners with someone from another culture or race.  Co-teachers include Raymond Reyes, vice president of diversity at Gonzaga University; Gordon Watanabe at Whitworth; Vince Lemus, affirmative action director at Eastern Washington University, and Marcella Banson Quanzena of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Dominant-culture people tend to be more open to listen to someone like themselves at first and then will listen to someone not like themselves,” Dan said.

A workshop handout lists denial, defense and minimization as the “difference-avoiding stages” that precede a paradigm shift, when people move to acceptance, adaptation and integration—the “difference-seeking stages,” he said. 

“The focus is on what people are to do rather than on what they are not to do, shifting from difference as a problem to difference as a resource.”

He found two problems in the early diversity training:

1) Diversity was about others, rather than about everyone.

2) Often trainers unconsciously considered participants “racist, sexist pigs.”

“The sub-message, ‘You are bad’ put people on the defensive and impeded learning, in contrast to the concept that we are all on a developmental cycle, learning how to live and work with others different from ourselves,” he said.

As a consultant in organizational management, leadership development and intercultural competence, Dan serves banks, media, utilities, technology firms and nonprofit boards.

He has also shared his insights through Leadership Spokane and the Congress on Race.

After graduating from the University of Iowa, he entered the Air Force and was assigned to Honolulu.  For the first time not in the majority culture.

After working several years with Xerox, starting in Honolulu and ending up in Spokane, he started a land brokerage firm and then became human resource development director with the firm, ISC. While in distance-learning doctoral studies with Fielding, he did organizational development work with Group Health.

In his research, he studied group dynamics among mixed-gender and single-gender teams.  He found less interruption, more talk and more synergy in mixed-gender groups.  In all-male groups, men tended to compete for dominance.  In all-female groups, there was an emphasis on relationships.

Dan, who grew up Catholic and now attends Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, hopes the developmental model will help people “expand the borders of their in-group to all humanity.” For example, “we become concerned not only about U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq but equally about the thousands of Iraqis who have died.

“The human species will survive if our in-group is everyone,” he said.  “The we-are-right-and-you-are-wrong mindset leads to crusades.  I’m crusading to stop crusades—to move people beyond just tolerance of differences to valuing differences as resources.”

This approach is in line with today’s way of doing mission  “walking alongside people, knowing there are many paths and not imposing ours,” he said.

“If people stay in the ethnocentrism of ‘my in-group is good and others are bad,’ stereotypes persist.  Hopefully, with education, we can move people to the intercultural competence of accepting and adapting,” Dan said. 

“My goal is for human beings to live and work together in harmony on a global scale, so we no longer think we have to kill other people in wars or acts of racial or religious hatred,” he said.

Dan encourages people to separate what is unfair dominance of their culture from what is just cultural style.

“We each need to be okay with our own culture, even if we are not okay with some parts of it,” he suggested.

Knowing that many people fear that acceptance of other cultures means relativism or giving up one’s own values, he pointed out that “seeing other’s values doesn’t mean giving up one’s own.  It just means noticing that different values drive other people’s behavior.”

At the 2005 Congress on Race Relations in Spokane, he led a workshop with Raymond, helping people explore these ideas.  They put quotes on the wall, things people might say or hear said, and asked participants to stand near one they criticized and then by one that expressed openness.

Participants’ comments revealed their varied interpretations, perceptions and assumptions.

“If 50 people look at the same sunset, they have 50 perceptions,” Dan said. 

“We work and live with people who are different from us.  The question is:  How do we encounter these cultural differences, aware that 99 percent of human beings’ genetic structure is the same?”

He hopes to help people see ethnocentrism as a stage and become aware that different values, beliefs and assumptions do not mean that “I need to give up my beliefs, adopt someone else’s and become like them.”

Dan suggests that people tend to see commonalities, because most people are in the minimization stage, seeing cultural differences as superficial and believing people are basically the same. 

“Seeing sameness is okay unless it inhibits seeing differences,” he said.  “For example, while most people respect human life, they differ on the death penalty.”

Raymond pointed out that words activate images:  The word “dog” brings different images to different people—a St. Bernard, a Chihuahua, a beagle—or the word “road”—a highway, a city street, a country lane—even in an apparently homogeneous group.

“Our sacred story is an intersection of our biology and our biography,” he said.  “In the developmental model, one thing happens before another.  I begin to recognize and appreciate differences in behavior and values. Celebrating diversity is a journey or process, not a destination.

“Sometimes we do not hear people’s words over their actions.  Adaptation includes empathy, shifting one’s frame of reference to understand and be understood across cultural boundaries.

“Integration internalizes multiple cultural frames of reference.  The developmental approach deals with identity in the context of cultural flexibility,” Raymond said, calling participants to “respect the dignity of persons and see the Good News in each other.”

In his presentation at that event, Dan challenged participants to move from their comfort zones.  He believes that intercultural competence provides a positive way to use human difference as a creative resource rather than being polarized by it, “so different people can work together harmoniously.”

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By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © November 2005