I recently had the opportunity to travel around the United States with 30 of the top young leaders from America and Turkey as part of the Atlantic Council’s Young Turkey/Young America (YTYA) program. The goal? To create transatlantic dialogue on foreign policy issues and strengthen America and Turkey’s relationship through some of the countries’ most valuable resources: their networks of young professionals.
After two weeks of intense policy conversations, cross-cultural lessons, and navigating the art of diplomacy, the first leg of Young Turkey/Young America finished (the group will reconvene in Turkey this coming spring), and we all took home powerful lessons in understanding. The inspiring discussions and strong bonds we built made me consider the cross-cultural lessons that we can all use in our careers. Here are the top take-aways from my YTYA experience.
Sit at the Table
At many of our meetings, we sat at a round table and could actively engage with our guest speakers—government and other policy officials—on an equal playing field. But during the times a room was too small to accommodate us, or the space at the table was limited, it was more difficult to really engage with the speaker throughout the session. And those of us who sat at the table had a clear advantage.
Sheryl Sandberg often mentions how women need to “sit at the table” in their professional careers, but I believe this is true for everyone. The way we take advantage of space can mean the difference between a truly breakthrough meeting or one in which you’re counting the minutes until it’s over. (Though in this case we definitely made sure to take advantage of our time, despite the space confines.)
Embrace and Respect New Ideas
We all came to this program with vastly unique experiences, politics, and personalities. And not only did we allow room for these differences, but we exerted patience and respect, even during major disagreements and debates and especially in the face of cultural differences. Even when our fellow Americans differed on politics, no one was dismissive of anyone else’s views, and we often came to embrace those new perspectives.
I am always a huge fan of listening among different cultures, and was so impressed to be on my home turf and able to apply my philosophy of living abroad right here. We don’t always take the time—or have the opportunity in our daily routines—to work through these disagreements, which makes it so much more powerful when we do.
Ask the Tough Questions, Even if They Might Be Uncomfortable
The speakers we loved most were those who were honest and real with us. On the contrary, we could always sense when people were there just to give another public relations speech. There’s always a fine balance between negotiating respect and demanding accountability, but there were times we had to ask the hard questions for officials to be straight with us.
We learned that doing this respectfully, as opposed to trying to set up a “gotcha” moment, is what worked best. In the professional world, we sometimes accept easy answers in the interest of job security or because we’re busy with daily life. But sometimes things needs to be put into proper context, and taking the time out to ask thoughtful, critical questions proves both insightful and efficient in the long run. You don’t have to have all of the right answers, but knowing how to ask the right questions can be an extremely powerful tool.
Understand Body Language and Tone
As an outspoken New Yorker, I talk with my hands and spread myself out. My Turkish friends, on the other hand, speak with diplomacy and polite poise. I didn’t realize the importance of checking my body language and wingspan until I started accidentally running into unsuspecting delegates. My tone, as well, could come off as overly passionate instead of diplomatic or objective.
Once I started paying attention to these cues, I learned that when I spoke with compassion and experience, it was easier for everyone to understand where I was coming from. I also learned to walk a little slower and minimize my gestures to enable international friends to focus on my words, rather then my movements.
Americans often have a “you’re on your own” attitude toward international visitors and a reputation for not being as hospitable as our transatlantic neighbors. But hosting international guests made us re-evaluate ourselves and our worldview. Our time together often featured ribald debate about the American love of air conditioning and lack of coffee breaks, and also discussion of cultural differences in regard to time and punctuality. Learning to laugh about these potential sticking points was key to our success.
Rediscover the Local
While our most intense learning moments happened within the walls of the Atlantic Council and on Capitol Hill, the moments that really shaped our friendships and outlook happened outside of the board room, in conversations and shared meals at the end of the day. There were also activities that opened everyone’s eyes—like the Minnesota State Fair—and submerging ourselves in completely new experiences really helped promote understanding. That social time away from meetings was critical in sharing (and shaping) our views, and resulted in tighter bonds with one another and a greater understanding of our own world through a new perspective.
Overall, the experience was reinvigorating and offered a new momentum and perspective to my career. I will miss my time with my Turkish and American friends, but am looking forward to new lessons in Turkey this spring.