Yesterday we said farewell to Ella, our exchange student from Australia. Her visit with us was a whirlwind with several trips into New York City to see the sights and soak up the liveliness of the New York holiday scene. But the time I enjoyed most was sitting around the house learning about her life in Australia and answering her questions about American norms and traditions. It was refreshing to ask and answer questions that might seem silly or uninformed but yet helped all of us to dispel of myths, stereotypes and movie depictions of life in our countries and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other. My daughter and her friends peppered Ella with questions about what it’s like to be Australian and they shared stories about the lives of American teenage girls – again no questions were viewed as too stupid or inappropriate to ask.

Wouldn’t it be great if as working adults we were willing to be that open and vulnerable – to ask the questions we feel we can’t ask and have the uncomfortable conversations that could lead to greater understanding and connection among us? Not only did we learn about what makes Australians and Americans different but we also came away with an appreciation for the many similarities there are in our everyday lives. Yes, Ella was asked whether they really say “G’day mate!” (No) or wear Uggs (only in the house) in Australia, and we talked about the condition of the Aboriginal people in comparison to Native Americans. We also talked about sports, going to university, and our favorite pop music. Those common experiences made our connections even stronger.

An article in the Harvard Business Review shares research about this very topic – To Make a Team More Effective, Find Their Commonalities by David DeSteno. He cited studies that showed how a feeling of commonality and shared interest on a team leads to greater cooperation and trust. A leader’s ability to create the opportunities for connection and awareness and to model empathy and compassion is a formula for developing more effective and engaged teams.

Just as we took the time to engage in freewheeling conversations with Ella, leaders need to allow time for team members to have open dialogue, whether it’s over lunch, an afternoon coffee break, or as an opening to your next meeting. To get conversations started in a team less inclined to engage with each other, consider offering a few prompts to lead off.

Asking questions is one of the most powerful ways to build connection and learn about others. Encourage questions, be willing to ask questions, and ensure that you take the time to create safe, non-judgmental space for questions. Set ground rules, allow ways for people to ask questions publicly and privately, and promote those instances when team members show a willingness to be open and vulnerable.

Through photos, small local gifts, and the sharing of items special to us, we accelerated our appreciation of each other during Ella’s time with us. I was reminded of a great icebreaker for meetings where each person brings a small item that represents something about them or something important to them – a baseball cap, family photo, brooch, or other memento. Seeing a small piece of that person’s life gives us a window into who they are, what is important to them, and how we connect to them through that understanding.

We are all different and there is strength in that diversity of experience, background, culture, and perspective. Our willingness to ask questions and to open the door for other’s questions sheds light and awareness on those differences. And we also have much in common. Seeing those commonalities can also make us stronger, more connected, and part of a great team – no matter what part of the world you come from.

How do you build cooperation and foster trust on your team?
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