Research, Listen, Observe, and Withhold Judgement: Terence McElroy Shares Lessons from Singapore and Sri Lanka on Minimizing Conflict
Terence McElroy (Class of 2018; second from the left in photo above) recently participated in Darden’s new Worldwide Course to Singapore and Sri Lanka, led by professor Marc Modica. He joined the course to “compile a list of key lessons that I can apply immediately” which largely came from “speaking with individuals native to those countries, observing body language, and listening to my classmates.” Terence, originally from New York, graduated from West Point with a degree in U.S. History and served one tour in Afghanistan before beginning work on his degree at Darden. He reflected on learnings from the Singapore and Sri Lanka course, connecting them with other parts of his life and applying them to his own leadership approach. In his own words:
The lessons that I will reflect upon have little to do with specific business skills and more to do with human interaction, upon which society and trade grow. The lessons all address, in one way or another, one common challenge that I observed in both Singapore and Sri Lanka: miscommunication and judgment cause conflict. Here are my key takeaways from the Singapore and Sri Lanka Darden Worldwide Course that I believe are paramount to minimizing conflict and will help me become a better student, business leader and person.
Know as much as I can about a person or company
As we met with business leaders, tour guides, and government officials, I was very impressed by how much they knew about American culture, history, and politics. For example, in my conversation with David Chin, Executive Director of the Singapore Maritime Foundation, I determined that he knew more about American politics than most Americans do. Similarly, other individuals, like Secretary Sivagnanasothy of the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka, mentioned the cold weather in Charlottesville and added small anecdotes about the University of Virginia in their discussions. As a listener, these small gestures, which communicated knowledge about my city, history, and culture, made me like and respect these individuals from the start. As I think about being a consultant after graduation, it makes sense to take a genuine interest in the history and culture of the companies that I work with. Taking the time to learn about company history, location, and culture will help me better understand the situation and build rapport. Similarly, I feel that if individuals take an interest in other people’s culture and circumstances, they are less likely to cause conflict.
Listen and observe
While stationed in Italy and serving in Afghanistan, I learned so much by shutting up, listening to people, and observing their body language and so I adopted that practice on this course too. I intentionally listened and observed more than I spoke. Here are a few of my top observations:
- Ask the right questions to get great answers: I was impressed by how my classmates asked questions and the topics that they brought up to each of the speakers. For example, Aly asked almost every speaker a question related to some social issue like gender inequality or education. Admittedly, these are not always topics that are at the top of my mind, but by listening to the answers I realized that many of Sri Lanka’s business challenges stem from cultural and gender biases. One of the keys to truly understanding a culture is to ask the right questions.
- Body language can say more than words: As I listened to many of the speakers, I noticed changes in their body languages and tones of voice. One speaker crossed her arms, used filler words, and was not particularly confident talking about Sri Lankan history and the economy. The tone and atmosphere in the room shifted completely after I asked her to talk about a passion. As she spoke about the #MeToo campaign, her body language opened, she stopped using filler words, and she expressed herself with confidence. My experience conversing with this individual and several others reinforced the notion that 80% of communication is nonverbal and good listeners can change the course of a conversation by recognizing nonverbal cues. I couldn’t help but think how much conflict could be avoided on a day-to-day basis if people observed each other’s body languages and picked up on nonverbal cues.
- Notice what is left unsaid: As I spoke with many Sri Lankans about social inequality in the country, I noticed that there was no mention of gay rights, which has perhaps been the single greatest social issue of the past decade in America and Europe. I found it very surprising that the issue did not even come up a single time as I spoke with many young Sri Lankans at the Peacebuilding Workshop. Thus, having observed that this issue had not been discussed, I brought it up to a government leader since he had spoken about Sri Lanka’s commitment to end discrimination and promote equality. The response to the question showed that gay rights are not commonly discussed in Sri Lanka. Given that the country has recently come out of a civil war and is rebounding economically, it makes sense that Sri Lankans have bigger fish to fry than many of our social issues. Nonetheless, the encounter reinforced the notion that we can learn about a culture by noticing what is left unsaid.
Do not be so quick to name-call or dismiss policies
This course reminded me of the importance of holding back judgment about people, government officials, and policies. Professor Jayakumar discussed Singapore’s policies on racism, the history and approach behind them and why the country strictly enforces such policies. It was a treat to hear open perspectives on these challenging issues and contrast the approach to what is (or is not) being done to address similar challenges in the U.S. The group did a great job of listening and not casting judgment on what we heard. In discussions that followed over dinner and over the course of the program, some students voiced their happiness that America does not have such policies, while also being open to the idea that these policies might be the best solution for Singapore to keep improving race relations. I truly believe that future conflict would be minimized if individuals withheld judgment on specific people and policies that do not immediately align with their worldviews.
Ultimately, this Darden Worldwide Course in Singapore and Sri Lanka reinforced the importance of not casting immediate judgment, actively listening and observing, and taking a proactive interest in people’s companies and culture to minimize conflict. Having lived in Europe for three years, I picked this Darden Worldwide Course to learn more about another part of the world, meet interesting people and learn about Eastern thought. As I boarded the plane from Sri Lanka, I felt a sense of accomplishment and I was also overcome with immense joy. I left Sri Lanka a better man with a greater appreciation for humanity and how I can contribute.