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How can I develop my intercultural sensitivity?

When working across cultures (as most of us today are in one capacity or another), a key question is, what can I do to independently develop and support others' development in intercultural sensitivity? This is an especially important question for flexpats, entrepreneurs, global nomads, and others who rely on self-learning as they may not have access to corporate DE&I initiatives and programs.

A useful model to learn and use as both a guide and benchmark for personal growth is one of the more influential ones in the fields of intercultural communication, engagement, and equity - the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.

In my own work as a consultant, trainer, and coach in Cultural EQ (developing cultural and emotional intelligence), I find working with these six developmental stages of intercultural sensitivity and communication for both individuals and organizations to be extremely helpful.

As you're reading these six stages, you can reflect on these two questions:


- Regarding my intercultural sensitivity toward my team members, clients, and other stakeholders, what stage am I currently at?


- Which action(s) could I take to increase my understanding in order to progress to the next stage?


The six developmental stages of intercultural communication and sensitivity:*


1. Denial

When an individual or group fails to recognize distinctions among cultures or consider them to be irrelevant; when they reject the claim that cultural differences exist or that they can be meaningful and consequential; or when they perceive people from different cultures in simplistic, undifferentiated, and often self-serving ways.


2. Defense

When an individual or group perceives other cultures in polarized, competitive, zero-sum, or us-against-them terms; when they exalt their own culture over the culture of others; or when they feel victimized or attacked in discussions about bias, bigotry, or racism.


3. Minimization

When an individual or group assumes that their distinct cultural worldview is shared by others, when they perceive their culture’s values as fundamental or universal human values that apply to everyone, or when people obscure, disregard, or neglect the importance of cultural differences


4. Acceptance

When an individual or group recognizes that different beliefs and values are shaped by culture, that different patterns of behavior exist among cultures, and that other cultures have legitimate and worthwhile perspectives that should be respected and valued.


This is also when greater curiosity about or interest in other cultures manifests and people may start to seek out cross-cultural relationships and social interactions that they might have avoided in the past.


5. Adaptation

When an individual or group is able to adopt the perspective of another culture and can empathize intellectually and emotionally with the experiences of others, or when they can interact in relaxed, authentic, and appropriate ways with people from different cultures.


This is also the stage when organizations embrace inclusive policies and practices that create conditions for respectful and productive cross-cultural interaction and teamwork among employees.


6. Integration

When an individual or a group’s identity or sense of self evolves to incorporate the values, beliefs, perspectives, and behaviors of other cultures in appropriate and authentic ways.


“Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews…. people are able to experience themselves as multicultural beings who are constantly choosing the most appropriate cultural context for their behavior.” - Milton Bennett


Me at a Daoist temple in Taipei


In my own experience of living, studying, and working for almost two decades in Northeast Asia, the above two questions have benefitted me immensely in developing my own Cultural and Emotional Intelligence skills. Having a roadmap and reference point is extremely beneficial!


In addition, I have found that these six stages are not linear but in fact, are in a fluid state. This state of flux is due to factors such as your own personality, who you're communicating with as well what circumstance you are communicating in.


In conclusion, here is an explanation from Milton Bennett on his rationale for developing the model: “After years of observing all kinds of people dealing (or not) with cross-cultural situations, I decided to try to make sense of what was happening to them. I wanted to explain why some people seemed to get a lot better at communicating across cultural boundaries while other people didn’t improve at all, and I thought that if I were able to explain why this happened, trainers and educators could do a better job of preparing people for cross-cultural encounters.”


* Sourced from the Organizational Engagement article

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