Slowing down to connect
A conversation about culture with Mark Leinbach
VL: Can you describe a time when different rituals, values, images, roles, customs, foods, or expectations needed to be understood in order to work together?
In my current role as Executive Director at SpringHaven, culture plays an important part in our daily rhythms. Our mental health counseling practice serves a large Amish and conservative Mennonite population. Many of our internal values and rituals reflect our customers or clients.
In several larger meetings with Amish, I was aware that I was not connecting with folks as much as I would have hoped. As I watched coworkers facilitate meetings, I realized that I wasn’t making enough effort to connect with people on a personal level before jumping into the topic at hand.
Connecting could mean telling a story or joke. It ultimately meant slowing down. I was able to find connections through talking about the recent gas station being built, loss in the community, or simple day-to-day happenings. These conversations helped to connect me to the group and to build trust.
After all, storytelling is such a large part of the Amish culture. Whether it’s telling the story of SpringHaven or of personal healing, people respond to stories.
Food helps as well.
VL: Has there been a time when you thought you were connecting or communicating, only to discover that it wasn’t being received the way you intended?
I have stumbled into this several times. One of the most recent examples is more humorous than anything: As I was walking through our office waiting area, I noticed a young boy was playing in our water feature. He started with splashing water with his hands, then he started putting his feet in the fountain.
Slightly amused, but wanting to maintain the quiet peaceful nature of the waiting area, I asked the boy to stop. Nothing. No response. I asked a second time, a little louder. He looked at me, and he went right on playing in the water.
I could feel my frustration level growing as I imagined the behavior problems this child likely had and the lack of responsible parenting. I looked around for his parents and didn’t see them. I guessed they were in a counseling session. Instead, I saw an older girl sitting close by. I asked her if she was a sister to the boy and if could she get him away from the water.
With a half smile she told me that the boy probably just didn’t understand me because he didn’t yet speak English. After she told the boy to get down in PA Dutch, I kicked myself for assuming the boy understood my instructions and that he was being intentionally defiant.
While this story is definitely lighter, this situation has been true in other instances when working with the Plain community or other cultures. Due to cultural assumptions, values, or beliefs, there have been times I thought that my message should be understand exactly as I communicated it, only to find out that it wasn’t.
Even after working in this community for awhile, I continue to learn, specifically by asking questions so that I can get feedback from others.
VL: Can you share more about your experience working with individuals from different cultures? How has this experience challenged or strengthened your faith?
I really enjoy working with and learning from people with a variety of faith traditions. In counseling sessions, I am able to hear how their faith has been impacted by loss and mental illness. There is something very holy about being present with people in those darkest moments.
Working with different faith traditions has also played a role in my own spiritual development. I have been challenged to be more aware of my own assumptions. As I have moved into leadership positions I have intentionally sought-out time for spiritual development and growth. These experiences, as well as mentorship from others, has definitely helped in strengthening my faith.
VL: In your work, do you have any resources that have been especially helpful to you?
Another book that I recently read, this one for an MBA class, is Images of Organization by Gareth Morgan. This text was helpful in thinking about organization as different metaphors, and the chapter on organizations as cultures was especially interesting.
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