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The Three Meta-Competencies of Inter-Cultural Intelligence

Updated: May 23, 2023

Meta-Competencies, Part 1 of 4

What is Inter-Cultural Intelligence (ICI) all about: “To nurture relational success and create new cultural spaces with the people around you!” To do this well you need to master the Three Meta-Competencies of ICI.

This article is part of a series of four articles that unpack the Meta-Competencies of Inter-Cultural Intelligence and its associated behaviors.

The world of Global or (inter)cultural competence has become a bit of a jungle. Just looking at the publications on global leadership alone reveal close to 160 endorsed competencies and behaviors. At KnowledgeWorkx we want to simplify the focus while at the same time trying to be comprehensive in answering the question: “What behaviors/competencies/skills do I need to be able to create new cultural spaces?” You might ask yourself: “Why the focus on new cultural spaces and what does that mean anyway?”

We believe that ultimately you could know a whole lot about nationalities, ethnicities or racial differences, but that in and of itself doesn’t add a lot of value when it comes to being in relationship with people who are different from you. It is a little bit like someone becoming an expert on the sport of Golf, but never being ‘in relationship’ with the game; never setting foot on a golf-course or never picking up a club to hit a ball.

It is also not enough to learn a lot about connecting with a different culture if all it does is help me get through the one meeting or the hour I need to negotiate with a foreign party. Of course, it is a step in the right direction, and it will start adding value, but in and of itself it doesn’t result in sustained relationship. This is a little bit like cramming for an exam and getting a good grade, but it doesn’t result in a long-term ‘relationship’ with the knowledge I crammed!

At KnowledgeWorkx we believe that those who have worked to develop their own Inter-Cultural Intelligence, are able to bring people together and from the beginning, start creating the third cultural space that resonates with the people contributing to the culture.

We believe that the culture of a place is the sum-total of the expression of the thinking, speaking, and acting of its contributors!

Somebody with Inter-Cultural Intelligence is intimately aware of this reality and will therefore always find ways to include people in the culture formation process. This culture formation process does not mean that everybody will feel they belong or that everybody is ready to sign a job contract because it is the best place to work for everybody. Carefully creating a Third Cultural Space automatically means that some people will feel that ‘this is not for me…” We have often seen that the intentional creation of the Third Cultural Space creates a level of clarity that is exhilarating for some and threatening for others. Clarity around the Third Cultural Space results in boundaries that define who we want to be, which automatically means that it also defines who we don’t want to be! Sometimes this means that some people will want to move on and we believe this is a healthy process as long as it is led by people who know how to practice Inter-Cultural Intelligence.

In order to guide people in developing Inter-Cultural Intelligence we developed a behavioral grid that is structured around Three Meta-Competencies. We looked at the three most important things that affect behavior and how certain meta-competencies influence what we do in an intercultural environment. We then prioritized them to help you learn how to engage in a more meaningful way.

Meta-competency #1: Master Fear, Operate in Freedom.

Managing one's sense of fear is the first challenge when entering an intercultural environment. Although we use the word ‘fear’ it can have a wide variety of manifestations from: apprehension, insecurity, ambiguity, losing control, confusion, nervousness, or actual fear.

Mastering our fear is a crucial skill that sets us free to engage fully in the moment. We are not talking about making fear go away, stuffing it under the carpet or killing it! We want to equip Inter-Cultural Intelligence practitioners with the ability to master fear, or to use another metaphor: ‘Learn to dance with fear, where you are the lead dance-partner.”

If on the other hand fear is the lead dance-partner, it consumes our thoughts, becomes the captor of our ideas, and prevents us from being able to listen to others carefully and meaningfully. It hinders us from handling conflict constructively. The presence of any level of fear tints our vision, makes our lenses foggy, disturbs our transmitters, and prevents us from effectively engaging with our audience. Fear prevents us from understanding and tends to shift the focus from ‘you’ to ‘me’. Fear hinders us from showing empathy and fear ‘instructs’ us to create distance between you and me.

Mastering any level of fear in the moment is therefore incredibly important to see, hear, feel, sense, touch the current moment for what it really is. This deeper level of ‘engaging in the moment’ allows us to “anticipate, correctly interpret and adjust to the culturally defined behavioral habits of others,” (the definition of Inter-Cultural Intelligence).

People have argued that Emotional Intelligence is the place to go when you want to develop these types of skills (self-awareness, self-motivation, self-regulation). I agree that Emotional Intelligence is a good starting point for beginning to master your fears. The dilemma we face is that EI is developed within a certain context. High EI in one context does not always guarantee high EI in another context (This is called the ‘in-group <> out-group effect’). Therefore, you need Inter-Cultural Intelligence to stretch your EI into the new context. Mastering your fears becomes a whole lot more difficult when you are in an intercultural environment where you have no idea of what’s going on: You don’t speak the language, the signs don’t make sense, you’ve never been there before, the words people speak don’t mean the same things you take them to mean, the non-verbal communication makes no sense, the rituals are foreign… All the Emotional Intelligence in the world will not help you to be truly successful in mastering your fears or apprehensions in intercultural environments that are foreign to you.

It is important to bring Inter-Cultural Intelligence into the mix and to use self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-regulation in being able to name your fear. In intercultural environments, mastery over fear involves channeling your emotion, not suppressing or ignoring it.

When children learn how to manage their emotions, they are first taught to give emotions a name. Mastering any level of fear should be handled in the same way. Naming your fear, apprehension, ambiguity or nervousness is the first step in being able to manage it. So, if you feel nervous, say that you are nervous and why you believe you feel that way. The earlier you learn to recognize the emotion, the faster you will learn to recognize what it might do to you and how to channel it or guide it in ‘the dance’.

No matter if you go into a coaching session, step into a challenging meeting or are walking (or zooming) into a workshop you are facilitating, it is healthy to check-in with yourself at a deeper level; we like to call it anchoring. Sometimes I even kneel and touch the ground to run through a few questions:

  • Is there anything that holds me back from fully engaging?

  • Do I detect any fears, insecurities, anxieties (or other emotions) inside of me?

  • What is my disposition in relation to the individual/group?

  • What are my intentions with the individual/group?

Meta-competency #2: See with clarity and remain focused on the greater good of all involved.

Through mastery over fear you can fully engage the person or the group and start to see what they need. You are free to connect in the moment and nothing is pulling you away or distracting you from being focused on them! You are also going to be mindful of any shifts in your own emotions and the emotions of people around you. Your clarity of vision grows, you gain more perspective on where they are at and where they want to be. In the process of engaging with people, a higher purpose becomes clear to the group as you guide them into envisioning the future with clarity. Even when people don’t agree or when discussions get heated, you can stay focused on the greater good because you are ‘leading the dance’!

Despite all of this, seeing clearly and remaining focused on the greater good can easily be sabotaged! Confrontation, a moment that triggers you or situations where people succeed in making things personal can be a real challenge! Here are some examples:

  • If things get shared that remind you of painful past experiences, or

  • If people make comments that are meant to create personal attack, or

  • If you get into a situation where you are tempted to ‘chose sides’ and lose your neutrality as a facilitator.

In the above situations it is easy to be hijacked by negative emotions and the result is that you start to focus on your own emotional safety. Negative emotions can cause you to stop paying attention to the greater good and instead you start to default to your own preferences and agenda and try to push it through. In most cases you would also try to speed up the process and force decisions that might not be made wholeheartedly. If fear takes control, it pulls you back to your default way of doing things, including your cultural default way of doing things!

Seeing clearly and staying focused allows you to give your whole attention to creating a journey where everybody can succeed in the moment. Of course, the reality is that sometimes that means that certain people have to ‘get off the bus’, that’s okay too. At the same time, your energy and your intents are focused on the greater good of everyone involved.

Meta-competency #3: Navigate Incompatibilities.

The first two meta-competencies together will drive your ability to become an artist in successfully engaging to navigate the (possible) incompatibilities that you encounter along the way: this is the 3rd meta-competency. In the intercultural space many (perceived) incompatibilities are not necessarily problems to solve or challenges to overcome, many times they are dilemmas or polarities to manage! Our world is full of dilemmas and polarities that are going to be with us for the foreseeable future! Wasting energy and resources on trying to make them go away is often a futile exercise.

NOTE: You cannot practice the 3rd meta-competency successfully if you don’t have the first two meta-competencies under your belt.

This last meta-competency, managing incompatibilities, is all about holding creative focus, energy and direction despite (or because of) the presence of different viewpoints. It is crucial for you as an Inter-Cultural Intelligence practitioner to grow in applying the tools of the Inter-Cultural Intelligence framework and methodologies. Using tools like detecting single stories, realizing which perception builders/breakers are at play, using the DIR, recognizing the presence of cultural learner or cultural critic behavior, are foundational building blocks of the Inter-Cultural Intelligence practitioner. Three Colors of Worldview and the 12 Dimensions of Culture assist you to provide structure in identifying and addressing incompatibilities effectively. The language of the Three Colors of Worldview and the 12 Dimensions of Culture is neutral and is comprehensive enough to create powerful conversations that neutralize the emotional sting that cultural differences can easily bring.

The more proficient you are in using the first two meta-competencies the easier you can guide people into difficult conversations using the language of the ICI framework. When I was beginning this journey I always thought that difference had to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible and I didn’t recognize that difference is often nothing more than creative tension that is trying to birth something! Utilizing the neutral language of the ICI framework allows people to quantify incompatibilities in a non-threatening way. The language of the Three Colors of Worldview and the 12 Dimensions of Culture also helps people to talk about differences in a less emotional manner. Very often people discover that those incompatibilities are not necessarily incompatible at all! Mastering the 3rd meta-competency brings Inter-Cultural Intelligence into the process and will create the opportunities to leverage diversity and difference and guide it to birth something beautiful!

Each of the three meta-competencies of Inter-Cultural Intelligence is supported by a further six competencies/behaviors that will allow you to develop your ability to become Inter-Culturally Intelligent. We will unpack these in the next articles.

Start a conversation with us to allow these 3 meta competencies to come alive for you, your team & your organization or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: From Surviving To Thriving in the Global Space.


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