5 Essential Steps To Develop Your Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence (CQ) ranks among the top “10 vital skills that you need for the future of work”, according to Forbes Magazine. “The path to a shared future is build on diversity and inclusion” writes the World Economic Forum. Globalisation and migration flows are already happening and we can only solve the big issues of our times and thrive in our careers if we are interculturally competent.


Here are the 5 essential steps that you need to take to develop your cultural intelligence:


1. Know yourself better

Start with yourself. Become aware of your personal preferences and your cultural imprint. Do you prefer to communicate directly or indirectly? Do you prefer a linear, structured work schedule or a more flexible one? How do you build trust? Through accomplishments or relationships? How much personal space feels natural to you?

The tricky part is that we all have blind spots. Our own culture is so natural to us that we don’t even realize that there can be different ways of thinking and making sense of the world. Become aware of your unconscious biases. The internet is filled with great infografics on the types of unconscious bias that exist.


2. Grow your awareness of others

Learn to change perspectives. Start by growing your knowledge about other cultures, their values and customs. A great way to start and to demystify over-simplified stereotypes is to be open-minded and interact with people from a different culture, gender, age, martial status, social class, profession, etc. Travelling and working abroad will accelerate the process, but only if you escape your cultural bubble.

Shift from only seeing through your own cultural lens to using different lenses and thus taking on a broader worldview. Practise empathy and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Go beyond and also try to grasp how the shoes feel with the other person’s feet. Imagine how you would assess a certain situation if you had grown up the same way and received the same cultural education as the other person. Think about how others may perceive you.


3. Interact mindfully

When you interact with different cultures, you will be facing many awkward situations – I guarantee you that! When you are confronted with such a typcially ambiguous situation, you will most likely experience a cognitive dissonance, a great mental discomfort due to two competing values or beliefs. According to latest neuroscience research, our natural reaction is to fall back into our limbic or even reptilian brain functions. That could range from a highly emotional burst to a primeval fight-flight-freeze response.

The culturally intelligent person takes a moment to pause and observe objectively what’s actually happening. This is the crucial moment where you need to put your familiar reaction patterns and instincts aside and use your prefrontal cortex to make sense of a situation. Ask open questions if you are not sure if you understood the person or situation well. Practise cultural humility, appreciate the other person’s point of view, work on your ambiguity tolerance, don’t jump to any quick conclusions, give the other person the benefit of the doubt.


4. Build bridges

Now put all your insights and skills into practise. Assume responsibility and be proactive, don’t wait for the other side to go first. Be creative and come up with new constructive ways of finding common grounds. Develop your very own stategies for dealing with cultural differences so that you can communicate and work effectively across cultures while respecting both your own and the other person’s values. Even if quite painful in the beginning, you will soon be rewarded with meaningful, inspiring and enriching experiences. These will help you build valuable relationships across the globe and thrive in international contexts.


5. Never stop learning

Cultural intelligence is not acquired over night. Our world is so very big and diverse and we are on a life-long learning journey. In my experience, it is the most valuable learning journey of all. Consider cultural intelligence to be a muscle that can be trained, just like your comfort zone can be stretched. Make sure not to overstrain your muscle. The secret lies in the healthy balance of authenticity and adaptation.



These 5 steps are basically the essence of everything that I have learned about cultural intelligence throughout my life so far. I have gained great insights from brilliant researchers, authors and interculturalists. But most of all, I have learned from my encounters with people who are completely different than me. By talking, being curious, reflecting, wondering, laughing, crying together and never ceasing to be amazed by the great diversity on this planet.


Professional assistance

Intercultural trainers and coaches are here to guide you through your very personal intercultural learning journey. We have the knowledge, experience, tools and exercises to encourage and empower you during every step of your intercultural learning journey. Contact me at wiebke@chameleon-coaching.com for a free 30 minute telephone consultation and start your journey right away!

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