28 Jul 2016 20:46 IST

How to get along amid people with similar differences

Understanding the other party’s motivations can help make sense of their actions

People are the same; it is their habits that are different. This insight from Confucius came to mind as I was seated next to the Queen of Bhutan in the audience at a college graduation ceremony. I found she had an easy smile and chatted warmly, despite the security guards around her.

The Queen didn't know me, naturally, and I don't get a chance to be with royalty as a matter of course, this was sheer happenstance. Both Her Royal Highness and I were in Washington DC to share a big moment in the lives of our dear ones. We both waited to catch a glimpse of our own special person walking down the aisle, cheered loudly when we saw them, and took photos with our phone cameras, trying to zoom in as much as possible.

At around 1:30 p.m., we both got really hungry, blue blood and red. She went off to eat at a Bhutanese restaurant, and I found myself a dosa place. That is just the way we were raised, our early upbringing creating in us a fondness for a particular cuisine, based on the geography and culture of our growing-up years. But later that evening, we found we had both chosen the same restaurant to celebrate the new graduates. I wore my best Kanjeevaram silk sari, and she wore her traditional kira. However, we both ordered a nice plate of pasta, having acquired a similar taste for global food.

Our outward appearance and choices we made were dictated by personal likes and dislikes as well as cultural upbringing. But inside, we were over 90 per cent the same. I couldn’t help thinking about how easy it was for us to temporarily meet in the middle with common interests.

In our interactions as global citizens, for doing business in the world, we will come across many teammates, business partners, customers and vendors whose success is closely linked to ours. Just two steps can lead to effective interpersonal communication on those occasions.

~~ Focus on Similarities

First, there is this overriding need to focus on similarities between us and the other person. We are actually the same; we both want to have peace, happiness and security. Only our ways of thinking are different. We are both on the same side and the problems to be solved are on the other side. If this could come up as a ticker tape in our mind, that is the first step to taking control of our emotions — allowing logical thinking, which in turn leads to problem solving.

~~ Adapt to Differences

Don’t judge in a hurry — he speaks too confusingly, she is showing lack of respect. Delve deeper. Before coming up with harsh words such as “always” and “never” — ‘why does she always tell me this’ or ‘he never waits for my side of the picture’ — we could say, “Help me understand why this would be a good solution”.

This kind of mental brake and change in verbal communication style can lead to far more positive communication, as I have found in my own life. It is not easy, and much thought has to go into it, as we choose to increase our awareness from moment to moment in the busy work day.

Understand that the other person is doing something a particular way for their own reasons, be it cultural or personality-driven. And it is highly likely that they are not doing it explicitly to upset you.

Accept that differences will remain differences and change will be gradual if at all.

Learn to feel positive about the person with whom the conflict is happening in your mind; even love them as a fellow human being. Take a moment to separate the words and actions of the other from the actual person. It will help you to continue to love your job too.

This step-by-step method makes it easier to temporarily adapt to the different way of acting or speaking that is required for smooth business transactions or team work. If you are a vegetarian, you’ll find you can tolerate without wincing a Japanese partner eating strong smelling fish at the same table as you. You will be able to accept your German vendor’s direct way of speaking, considered rude in your milieu, without branding him offensive. You can even accept another person from your own country, who bangs the table during a meeting, without dwelling on the intent of the gesture.

As we learn to shift our attention and go with the flow, business flows too.