Katherine King of Invisible Culture: “Five Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”

Alexandra Spirer
Jun 25, 2020 · 16 min read

Suspend Negative Judgment. People are accustomed to looking outside of themselves to find blame. But blame is the inverse of responsibility and a sign of 3rd level distress. Whether you are blaming or being blamed, recognizing that it is a sign that someone is in stress and suspending any negative judgment, is the first step toward understanding of our Beautiful Differences. I remember when I was 20 and backpacking around the world back in 1991. I remember when I visited Japan and saw how everybody followed the rules. I negatively judged them as Rule Followers. I placed a label on them. I boxed in an entire population of a beautiful culture of people into something I could easily label through a narrow perspective. In reality, that negative judgment was not an accurate reflection of their worth but more a reflection of my own risk taking adventurous and young spirit. Once I learned how to get out of my own way, suspend negative judgments and search for alternative causes, I had more access to the humanity that we all share.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine King. Founder and CEO of Invisible Culture, Katherine King is a leading corporate consultant who combines various behavioral sciences in her groundbreaking Interaction Intelligence Quotient (IIQ) training method. She is a Diversity and Inclusion specialist with a focus on global workplace dynamics. Her experiential approach has been integral to the increased competency development and success of many complex and sensitive international negotiations, in addition to executive and family expatriation and repatriation programs. Her national areas of expertise include the United States, India, Singapore, Japan, China, Australia and Costa Rica. She is the author of the online training tool — Culture Detective, Costa Rica.

Katherine studied Political Science at Stony Brook University, received her Master’s in Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and has various certifications in personality profiles, corporate coaching and cross-cultural dynamics. Because of her experience coaching people through serious transitions, her expertise on stress arcs and adaptation cycles are cited by various media. She has been a speaker at conferences and has sat on various panels. She is a member of The Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Katherine is fluent in English and Spanish, dabbles in French and studied Mandarin Chinese. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and three children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Thank you for that question. It allows us to build context around one another, which is one of the steps toward building positive change.

I was raised on the North Shore of Long Island in a house that my Greek immigrant grandparents built in an attempt to live somewhere close to the water. The house was buried in a thicket of tall forests that butted up against the Long Island Sound. You could barely see the neighbors’ houses. There was no town or store. The closest carton of milk was 25 minutes away. During the summer when people built bonfires we could see the lights of Stanford Connecticut across the water.

My mother was a classical violin teacher. My father was an aeronautical engineer for Grumman during the time it was under contract with NASA. He worked on the lunar module, a source of pride for him last year for the 50th anniversary. He is 93. I was the sixth of his seven children and the second of my mother’s three. Four boys and three girls, a lot like the Brady Bunch. My father would fish with a spear gun at The Big Oak beach, which was just five houses away from us. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways. I genuinely believed that there were gnomes and leprechauns that lived in the woods around my house.

It was a communal upbringing with children in the neighborhood playing collective games of “Ring-Olivio”. I spent most of my summers barefoot in a bathing suit with a towel wrapped around my neck, hanging out with the kids all over the neighborhood climbing cliffs, climbing trees and jumping into ponds with snapping turtles. It was not uncommon for another neighbor to feed us lunch if they could tell we weren’t going to stop playing at the beach that day.

Adolescence introduced divorce to our home and my father moved to California while my mother raised three girls on her own. Chicken Ramen noodles with parmesan cheese sprinkled on top is still a comfort food for me from that time. I don’t think I saw a person of African-descent until I went to the Bronx Zoo when I was probably 6 or 8? Till then, I had spent a good part of my young adult life thinking that I wasn’t biased just because I didn’t want to be. It wasn’t until later that I came to realize that my ability to enact my good intent, went beyond the self to include the interaction with another. This lack of awareness we have about ourselves and others that I call ‘Invisible Culture’.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?

The works of Edward T. Hall have been of significance to me. I do think his work is directed toward people who want to study the Science of Differences, but ‘Beyond Culture’ is a great starting point for even a casual reader.

Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

For those who may not be familiar with Hall, he was an anthropologist whose work in intercultural communications was groundbreaking in developing several fields of research including proxemics, which studies how different cultures are expressed in the nature of personal and public spaces. And he’s written so many books on intercultural differences that have been touchstones for me in both my professional and personal life.

But there have been more than a few wonderful books that have resonated with me as well. For instance, just before quarantine went into place, we decided as a family to temporarily move out of the city. Thinking how the children might not return to school for a while, I grabbed a few books on the way out. I have a five-year-old so I chose a book called Race Cars by Jenny Devenny and that became our quarantine book. Every night we read it. It’s an illuminating picture book that explains white privilege through a graphic metaphor. It’s simple and easy to digest for both a child and an adult.

I like this book because it’s very difficult to talk to people about something that may be outside of their own awareness i.e. the subconscious bias that all of us need to keep us protected and safe in our own world, but cause friction with those who are different. Through its storytelling, the book effectively adds this experiential component of something we can all relate to — a race against racism.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are” attributed to the French-Cuban author and diarist Anaïs Nin

Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Yes, I remember when I once held negative judgments toward other people because they weren’t like me. I didn’t realize back then that those were more a reflection of my own preferences, life lessons, cultures, experiences and development and it was only a version of me in that single moment in time. It had nothing to do with the worth of the Other (capital O). I’ve since learned that when I get the feeling that someone is “rude,” it is a gift, a symptom of enthno-centrism. And it’s a chance for self reflection and a place that all people can start the Peaceful Protest inward.

Certainly, it’s a natural inclination for people to give themselves credit for the good things and blame others for the bad things. But evolutionary survival instincts will require intent-filled action in order for there to be the paradigm shifts necessary for lasting change.

How do you define “Leadership”?

Leadership is the ability to guide followers toward mutually beneficial goals. Leadership is looking at external threats to develop internal strategies. The way a leader solves problems is what the group culture will become. My definition of a ‘Leader’ is someone who has someone following them. There are good ones and bad ones out there. My definition of a ‘Good Leader’ is a person who has high interaction intelligence and influences their follower-base in a mutually beneficial way that honors the authenticity of group dynamic towards the success of their family, team, group or organization.

Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Traditionally a leader is thought of as the chief, but in international organizations people are showing leadership skills at all ranks, whether that is directed upward or down in the organizational chart. We traditionally think of a leader as someone who is the boss or at the top of an organization, but I often work with people from all levels who develop their own set of leadership skills along the way.

In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people.

Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today?

Yes, Nelson Mandela. When I visited Robbin Island outside of Cape Town for the first time, I was deeply affected by seeing where he lived for 27 years and completely humbled in contemplation of his life’s journey. His story inspired resilience in me when I eventually found myself facing a personal set of complex struggles in life.

Can you share a story?

In 1995, when the new South African Government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I saw it as a constructive path toward healing. And in time, we all saw that by giving voice to victims and persecutors, healing began for individuals within their own communities. Both sides were able to face some difficult truths about themselves and reconcile their actions, if they so choose. Healing begins with self-reflection. I feel like if Mandela was able to create a path for extending forgiveness to his captors and an entire race that was responsible for oppressing his own people, then our potential as humans for forgiveness, compassion and therefore understanding of Difference, is limitless.

This has also opened my eyes to how community is a vital source of human kindness. Growing up, I was friends with a girl in my neighborhood whose parents, Bobby and Bonnie Aliazzo, were a comforting presence. My mother was working two jobs then so, looking back now I realize, she wasn’t around a lot for advice and guidance. But Mr. and Mrs. Aliazzo would welcome me whenever I walked up their long path, even unannounced. There were countless conversations when they assured me over some things that concerned me at the time. I vaguely recall a conversation about applying for college but I still remember the relief I felt at the age of 14 when Mrs. Aliazzo assured me it was all right that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up yet. Even now, when life throws me a curve-ball they are still there for me so I look for ways to pay their kindness forward.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today?

In both the recent issues of the pandemic and racial tension we are facing an unprecedented challenge on a global scale. Everyone has had an opportunity to experience a threat to their life by something that we can’t see or touch. That awareness can be translated into meaningful change by recognizing that, what I call, our ‘Beautiful Differences’ are the clues that can illuminate our path forward toward mutual understanding and healing.

There are countless professionals in my field of Diversity and Inclusion that have a lot to offer in terms of how to navigate the long and uncertain road ahead with a deeper understanding one how to use our shared humanity to bridge our endless differences.

Unveiling Invisible Culture starts the conversation about our blind-spots. We all have them and they are with you no matter where you go. I believe most conflict arises in the intersection between the lack of awareness of what we don’t know about ourselves and people who are different from us. During the middle of the 20th Century the field of Intercultural Communications was developed for the training of professionals to bridge between the values, beliefs and assumptions that we can’t see, and the behaviors that we can.

Why does that resonate with you so much?

In both cases of how we reacted as a society to the pandemic and the racial tensions, I am particularly interested in illuminating the science around Stress Masks — the unequal treatment of an Other by good people, that doesn’t match their good-will. In other words, good people who show bad behavior. Some people have lived under a pressure cooker of stress their whole lives and others can’t begin to imagine what that specific experience is. Neuroscientists are also giving us insight into how being in a mode of fight/flight takes us out of our rational brain. Maybe certain types can’t manage the fight/flight response and shouldn’t be in positions of power because their modicum of self-preservation is too strong.

This resonates for me because I see the pain caused when power structures leave certain populations without basic needs and dignities. Just like NASA needed to know how people would behave under stress before their went up into space, our protecting institutions need to know how people who will have the power to choose between life and death, also know their stress arc and profile. Any occupation that has life or death responsibility should do a thorough investigation of how each unique individual is different based on their nature, nurture and ever-evolving culture.

When people go into stress, we naturally look outside of ourselves versus inside. It’s part of how we protect ourselves when there is a threat. Now, the world has lost human contact, felt the fear of death and now marching through the benevolent rage of injustice. What if individuals could collectively become a detective of their own invisible Cultures instead of pointing the finger outwards? Majority communities are searching for ways to show their support without being disrespectful. The easiest way is for people to take an inventory and accept that we all have biases and while that’s natural, it’s part of what needs to be repaired.

I am also eager to understand how the Police Training Programs apply experiential learning to identifying stress responses. I would like to understand what the core competencies of a police officer is in this country and see if there are ways to adapt them to keep everyone safer. It makes sense to get granular into their training programs so that experts can see where the experiential skill development is leaving certain officers without the abilities they need to do their jobs AND do no harm.

This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Clearly these responses have been developed in cultural settings for generations. But on a personal level, when an individual is inculcated in a belief system that was based on the misconception that they are more valuable than another, power-structures evolve. People without power support those structures for the sake of survival. Certain personality types will thrive in a competitive environment and others won’t. Since survival is what drives us at the most basic level, the threat of the Other has reached a point of institutionalized inequality. And it was an inevitability that that inequality would come into scrutiny and question. The real change can begin only when people start with the Self.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it?

I started training people to work across cultures in 2000 while living in Singapore. Two of the cornerstones of my work are Acceptance of the Other and Adaptation of the Self. People with good intentions may not recognize that what makes them successful at home is exactly what could cause them to cause offense elsewhere. So I’ve had extensive experience with global companies that routinely staff in various countries. In many cases, the importance of adequately preparing people for expatriation (and repatriation) can be overlooked.

I also engage with small and large teams who work across cultures, but never leave their homes. I provide cross-cultural tools so people can continually adapt whether it is to a new country, work-team or evolving self. Companies report paradigm shifts in workplace values and strategies after doing the work around the Science of Difference, especially in environments where diversity and inclusion are valued.

Can you share a story with us?

For example, often times I train very competent managers who have been selected for overseas assignments. This means they are the best of the best within their groups. So many times people start the program saying that they want to end early. But then they keep me there until well after the ending time because through the training they begin to realize there are certain aspects of themselves they were not conscious of until then. And that is our ‘Invisible Culture’.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Suspend Negative Judgment. People are accustomed to looking outside of themselves to find blame. But blame is the inverse of responsibility and a sign of 3rd level distress. Whether you are blaming or being blamed, recognizing that it is a sign that someone is in stress and suspending any negative judgment, is the first step toward understanding of our Beautiful Differences.

I remember when I was 20 and backpacking around the world back in 1991. I remember when I visited Japan and saw how everybody followed the rules. I negatively judged them as Rule Followers. I placed a label on them. I boxed in an entire population of a beautiful culture of people into something I could easily label through a narrow perspective. In reality, that negative judgment was not an accurate reflection of their worth but more a reflection of my own risk taking adventurous and young spirit. Once I learned how to get out of my own way, suspend negative judgments and search for alternative causes, I had more access to the humanity that we all share.

2. Explore the Invisible Culture of the Self and the Other (that which is out of your and their awareness, sub-conscious biases, beliefs, and preferences). I was coaching/training executives of multi-national corporations for two decades before I realized that if I thought of my husband (like Japan) as a totally different entity, then I could apply my work-based learning into the family environment. Haha. No really, it worked!

3. Accept the Validity of Our Differences and of Each Individual’s Right to our Respect, even under stress. And ultimately how distress is not a justification for talking down to people. There was a person taking a taxi to the airport and the driver made a wrong turn. The passenger raised his voice and said, “I can’t believe you just did that. Now I’m going to miss my plane.” If we truly believe in one another’s humanity, then the driver is allowed an error and the blame is shared. The passenger could have allowed for our natural propensity to err and not left it to the last moment which is an added stressor for the taxi driver. Both parties are part of the solution.

4. Practicing Healthy Adaptation. Marginalized communities are already accustomed to unhealthy ways of adapting simply for their survival, so this requires diligent practice. This means identifying what success looks like for yourself, learning about the Other’s difference and matching how you will adapt based on your unique personality and needs and setting healthy limits when the imbalance of power results in over-adaptation (when possible and safe, consider a woman who is gets beat for speaking up for herself).

5. Repeat. Because like acquiring any new skill, these steps take constant practice. And it won’t be easy to counteract the beautiful differences that come from our nature, nurture, and ever-evolving culture.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality?

Each Individual can start by looking inward and doing trainings in sub-conscious bias awareness and intercultural competency development.

Teachers colleges and schools should incorporate Difference-Based Sciences into their curriculum

Multi-national Corporations can elevate their Diversity and Inclusion stakes by making those tools (Interaction Intelligence) available to their employees available to the masses

What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen?

Avoid giving in to an impulsive reaction. It is important to first Suspend Negative Judgment and Build Context around the situation in order to better understand the true circumstances.

Identify when Stress Masks are operating to make sure you aren’t imposing your issues onto someone else, or so you can show compassion to someone else who may be in stress.

Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?

There is perceived value, across different in cultures, in what is commonly seen as ‘cool’. Therefore it would really help for a community to deem it un-cool to say negative things toward another person, group or entity. The first place to start is with the Self.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved?

100% I am very hopeful, because I believe once we can match people’s intent to their impact, then there is no limit to what we can do together.

Can you explain?

A fundamental aspect of these current issues stem from a lack of understanding how our Invisible Cultures shape our actions. I have every confidence that once we are better equipped to understand ourselves and others we can create meaningful change.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would say that they should remember how each one of us can make a real difference and that by doing so they are likely to improve their own circumstances as well as those of countless other people.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Alicia Keys or Jada Pinkett Smith. Alicia, because I would really like to be in the presence of someone who has the power of music to bring us all together. Art is such a potent force and I believe that these messages are best delivered through ways that can touch as many people as possible. Jada, because I see her trying to create healthy conversations that are based in respectful exchanges. And if either of them happen to read this, I want them to know how grateful I am for their art.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Alexandra Spirer

Written by

I am an entrepreneur, publicist, journalist and event producer based in Sunny Florida. My passion is writing & giving back to others.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Alexandra Spirer

Written by

I am an entrepreneur, publicist, journalist and event producer based in Sunny Florida. My passion is writing & giving back to others.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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