What is Cultural Intelligence? It is the ability to recognize the complexity of multicultural environments and develop personal skills to effectively engage and work within a variety of diverse settings. It goes beyond the notion of supporting diversity. In order to shift the culture of our corporations and institutions, four dimensions must be addressed; personal, interpersonal, systemic, and cultural.

This article discusses six personal skills necessary to build your Cultural Intelligence.                                                                                  

1. Mindfulness

We all develop unconscious biases based upon where we grow up, the religious and educational institutions we participate in, and our family of origin. To become aware and mindful of our thoughts and reactions requires investigation of our underlying belief structures, which can be illuminating and perhaps painful.

2. Humility

The prelude to becoming mindful is to practice humility and a beginner’s mindset. The Latin root of humility means literally “on the ground” and “of the earth.” Developing humility entails grounding yourself in the mindset that you do not have all the answers. A beginner recognizes that they will make mistakes as part of the learning cycle.

No one likes to feel incompetent or make mistakes. We feel vulnerable each time we slip up, but that is the nature of learning. To reduce the emotional queasiness of being a learner, admit it, out loud. Take the risk and share with others that you are learning how to be more culturally aware and will most likely make mistakes. Then give yourself grace when you do.

3. Empathy

Maya Angelou said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Developing Cultural Intelligence requires the ability to listen empathically. To listen so deeply to the other person that they experience the sense of being understood.

4. Respectful Questioning

Most of us listen just enough to assume we know what the other person is trying to communicate, and then quickly determine our response before they finish speaking. Empathic listening requires slowing yourself down and setting aside your thoughts and opinion in order to prioritize the other’s experience of being heard.

We understand and relate to the world based uponourexperiences, and there is a natural tendency to assume that is “the” world. Cultural Intelligence means you recognize that there are multiple views, experiences, and value systems. Develop your tolerance for not knowing. Set an intention to be more curious and ask respectful questions. Focus your questions on the individual. There is nothing more frustrating than to be asked questions as if youare the representativeof your culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

5. Communicating Objectively

Practice communicating objectively. State the observable facts, not your interpretations or assumptions. If you state your opinion, own it. Use “I” statements. Ask others to own their opinions and to speak to the facts. The more you model and encourage this behavior, the more likely you can reduce communication assumptions about others based upon race, gender, etc.

6. Attending to Nonverbal Behavior

Become adept at observing the non-verbal cues of others. Notice who speaks when, who gets listened to, who sits where, who interrupts whom, and especially notice if someone is experiencing discomfort in a conversation. It is only when we see micro-inequities that we can begin to address them and shift behaviors.

None of these skills can be developed overnight or even within a few months. It takes a clear intention and daily practice. It also requires that you increase your capacity to take risks, be vulnerable, and make mistakes. Most of us do not realize that we lack Cultural Intelligence. Developing these skill sets are now more critical than ever before. Align these proficiencies to your personal values to strengthen your intention for development. Start with small steps. The more you practice the competencies of Cultural Intelligence, the more you create opportunities for everyone to bring all of themselves to the workplace.


With over 20 years of coaching experience, Carol Putnam has helped leaders at companies like Hewlett-Packard, Tektronix, and Microsoft to reach their career and organizational goals. She challenges leaders to look deeply at themselves, helping them to identify and develop capabilities in emotional intelligence, communication, productivity, collaboration and more. Carol has a master’s degree in Adult Education, a master’s degree in Counseling, and a doctorate in Education with a focus on Training and Organizational Development. She is a member of the International Coaching Federation.