For 20 years, we’ve promoted the importance of learning to flex your personal cultural style so you can bridge cultural differences when encountering people from backgrounds that are distinct from yours.

Having the ability to think flexibly is an attribute of being inclusive, no matter the origin of our differences.

In RW3 CultureWizard’s Global Inclusion Assessment, people have the opportunity to answer questions that will gauge their ability to be open to different ways of thinking – or what psychologists refer to as “cognitive flexibility.”

Why It’s Important to Practice Cognitive Flexibility

People tend to have a variety of different communication needs and styles that are often informed by their culture. This means it’s best for you to respond to others – and continue communicating with them – in a style that will resonate with them.

For example, if someone is quite direct and you may be somewhat more indirect, it’s helpful if you can communicate with them in a way that is more straightforward and blunt than you would usually prefer. Or, if someone is extremely deferential, it’s best to mirror that deference with “thank-yous” and acknowledgments. 

In other words, your interactions will be more successful if you can flex your communication style to closer match the ways others are comfortable receiving messages.

Of course, that’s not always easy and we each need to remain genuine and true-to-our-own communication styles, or we actually run the risk of becoming less effective. So, flexing your style – and your way of thinking – isn’t easy. It needs conscious focus and practice, and we always want to be sure that in our attempt to be flexible we don’t impair our ability to be genuine.

Gaining Flexible Thinking Skills

As you can see, learning to think flexibly isn’t easy, but it is a skill you can learn. Here are some suggestions for ways to develop your cognitive flexibility. 

  1. Take note of the way other people are communicating – are they direct or indirect? Do they need a lot of context or do they just give you a lot of facts?

  2. Pay close attention to whether the people you are communicating with are group-oriented or individually oriented. Do they refer frequently to “I” or to “we”? It’s helpful to notice that behavior and try to flex a bit so that your interaction can be more effective.
  3. Look for things that you have in common with diverse people as a means to open your mind.

  4. Broaden your knowledge of cultural groups with which you are unfamiliar. Reading or watching films produced by a member of the cultural group, for example, can be a good place to start.

  5. Engage in self-questioning. Ask yourself if there are other ways you can interpret a situation.
  6. Seek out trainings, conferences, or webinars on bias and inclusion topics.
  7. Develop awareness for commonly held biases and thinking styles that promote stereotypes and unhealthy generalizations. Actively challenge these distorted thought patterns. Here are some common examples:
  • All-or-nothing thinking: When you see things as black or white. With all-or-nothing thinking, for example, if your boss doesn’t approve your time-off request, you might think, “I hate my job. My boss never approves my time off!”
  • Discounting the positive: When you give little attention to positive experiences and focus more on the things that are going poorly. When receiving a performance evaluation, you may tell yourself, “The positive feedback about my communication style doesn’t matter because everyone here knows how to communicate.”
  • Fortune telling: When you predict that something will not work out in the future. When you prepare for a meeting, you think, “I bet no one will accept my ideas.”
  • Overgeneralization: When you see a single event as a more chronic or never-ending experience. After missing a deadline, you think to yourself, “I’m never going to get caught up.”
  • Emotional reasoning: This happens when you assume that a negative emotional response reflects how things really are. In preparation for a presentation to the team you begin to feel anxious. You then reflect, “I’m feeling pretty nervous about this, so it must mean I’m not a good presenter.”
With conscious effort and practice, you’ll notice that flexing your cultural preferences can help make your interactions smoother – and ultimately, the experience could be more satisfying for you and who you’re communicating with.