Accepting Different Cultures To Unlock Your Full Potential With Marilyn O'Hearne


Every culture is different. Imagine being in a meeting, and there is one person who is sitting quietly. Some people will think that that person is not contributing to the discussion. Little did you know that, in that person's culture, it is rude to speak out. Join your host, Tony Martignetti and his guest Marilyn O'Hearne as they talk about cultural differences. Marilyn is a Mentor, Coach, Author, and owner of Marilyn O'Hearne MA, MCC. Marilyn experienced different cultures throughout her life and believed that people could unlock their full potential if they learn to accept these cultures. Learn to look inside someone, not outside, based on their race or gender. Find your full potential today!


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Accepting Different Cultures To Unlock Your Full Potential With Marilyn O'Hearne

It is my honor to introduce my guest, Marilyn O'Hearne. She partners with clients, including the UN leaders, to confidently step into success in our rapidly changing, uncertain and culturally complex world with expanded capacity, deep transformation and fresh perspectives. According to her, it is impossible to not work interculturally. She considered not only nationality, ethnicity, but also gender and generation into the work that she does. She’s a globally experienced cultural intelligence, CQ executive, leadership team and mentor coach. She does coaching supervision, working with leaders and coaches in 40 plus countries since 1998. She's the author of Breaking Free from Bias and contributor to Law and Ethics in Coaching. She lives in Kansas City where she loves being outside spending time with her grandchildren or little toddlers. She loves dancing. It is my pleasure and honor to bring you onto the show.

Thanks, Tony. I'm excited to be here.

It's going to be exciting to dig into your story and see what's brought you to make such an impact with amazing leaders in the world, especially in this given time where we do need people like you to make an impact. This is going to be fun.

We are at the campfire toasting marshmallows.

I'm always thinking about that, how can we create more of that ambiance of the campfire since we have to do it virtually? It is the way it is. What we will do is we will warm up the fire by creating some interesting stories and some ways of sharing your past and uncover those moments that have been the Flashpoints that have ignited your gifts into the world. That's what we are going to do here. We are going to share your moments that have been pivotal in your career and in your path to getting to where you are now. As you are sharing your story, we are going to stop along the way and we will get to see what's showing up. With that, I'm going to turn it over to you and let you take it away.

I'm going to start young. When I was in grade school, I had some things that shocked me and were upsetting. I didn't know what to do with them at the time. Later, I felt called to write my book on bias and dig into the cultural piece. As a child, there were three things in one year. One was, one of my playmates was Japanese American. Her dad was American and her mom was from Japan. She was over at my house playing and a neighbor was there, too. The neighbor said to my friend who's Japanese American, "You are so tan." I said, "She's not tan. She's Japanese American." My Japanese American friend was so upset with me for saying that because she wanted to hide that part of her identity. She didn't feel good about it and she didn't like me calling it out. As a kid, you think, "I thought it was cool." This was something she didn't think was cool.

It is so crucial for coaches and for leaders with their teams to do a cultural check-in. 

My parents, thankfully, were intercultural themselves and had friends from different religions, races and ethnicities. We went to one of their friend's homes. When we arrived, there was a mean-looking German Shepherd barking, barbed wire around the fence. This was not a neighborhood I had been in before. It was an African American family. When we went in, I'm the curious coach even as a child, I was like, "Why do you have this mean dog and the barbed wire fence?" They said, "We are afraid to live in our neighborhood. It's not safe." I said, "Why are you living here? Why aren't you living in my neighborhood? Our neighborhood is safe." They said, "We can't." I said, "Why not?" They said, "It's because of our race." I was like, "What?" I was a kid.

It never occurred to me why our school was all white and our neighborhood was all white. I'm thankful that my parents gave us some exposure to different cultures. They worked globally also. I had that sense of not only shock. This isn't right. This isn't fair. Why isn't anybody doing anything about that? I'm not having the feeling that I had the power as an elementary school kid to do anything about it. Later, I was feeling called to write the book. That early interest in cultures and that my parents raised us with.

The third was my dad taking the four of us kids. The four of us were born in six years to a medical meeting in our city. My parents were doctors and they were hosting Russian doctors. This was at a time of the Cold War. Russia was the scary bad guys. That was talked about at school, church and in the community. They were out to convert us to communism or kill us. We are sitting in the corner trying to entertain ourselves by playing the game of Hangman. This Russian doctor comes over and asks us what we were doing. We explained to them. He said, "That seems so violent. Is there some other way to play this game so the person doesn't die?" My little brain clicked. "We have been told these people are bad. They are scary. They are out to get us. This guy is saying our game is too violent. Something doesn't match up here. Maybe what we have been told isn't right. This group of people is not all bad and scary." That was my first experience of breaking through from my own bias about a group of people.

That is a great entry point. I love that you started in your childhood and seeing that we have this programming that's laid out for us. Hangman never even put 2 and 2 together to see how bad that is, first of all, but in essence, we accept it as not an issue but from the outside looking in, that is violent. It is not the right thing for us to be teaching our children or giving us a game to play. Looking at those other episodes that you described, it's so powerful when you think about the impact that that has on a child who has that innocence of saying, “Why can't we all see things as we are all part of the same thing or a part of the same group? Why can't we all have equal opportunities and equal places to be?” That curiosity, I'm assuming, stuck with you along the way.

That was encouraged in my family, to be curious and that learning was fun. That has been a lifelong quest to continue to learn and develop. A shocking thing is some of the research I have found in writing the book is these starts as toddlers, the worldview, the bias and the prejudice, even with nonverbal communications. If you are with your parents in the grocery store and they see someone who doesn't look like them and pulls you closer and hurries away, you get the idea, that group of people is not safe.

It makes a lot of people worry about how they are showing up and be a little more cautious about what you are doing, even the nonverbal. This is why we are in this moment where we are starting to think, "How have I been contributing to some of the problems that have been showing up in the world? Even though we may seemingly think, “I don't have any biases,” we all do subconsciously. You had this event as a child. What did that prompt you to do? How did you go from those moments? What did you decide to study when you went further on into your schooling?

We had people from different countries and different cultures in our home, I went by myself at age sixteen to visit a colleague of my parents and have that experience. In college, I did a semester in Spain. The college I went to was in Texas. I have lived in three different countries, Spain, Brazil and Texas. Texas, I love you. I have relatives and friends there. We all have different cultures. I'm in Kansas, the Midwest. We tend to be nice. On the East Coast, the reputation is more blunt, direct. We all have these different cultural identities.

It's always this element of people think of the United States, England or any one of these countries. You have this idea of what it looks like. It's not bad. There are so many parts to different types of areas where people start to create identities. It's very different depending on where you land.

In our country, in India. I have been doing some work in Ethiopia. In the last several years, 64 different ethnic groups and about as many languages. No wonder they have some conflict. This is part of my personality, too. I have learned to focus on three things at a time. Otherwise, I'm interested in so many different things. My Major was Social Sciences. I’ve got to pick three areas. It was Cultural Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology. I’ve got a Master’s. I taught for Webster University and then I taught for another university. They recommended me. They were looking for people who would teach two weeks at a time in Asia. I taught in Hong Kong and Malaysia. I went back to Asia in 2014 for three months. That was a magical unfolding. I had bookends. People invited me to do different things, speaking, coaching and training in between. I spent a lot of time in Asia as well. I have been working with UN leaders for years but also big global organizations and some local not-for-profits, quite a mixture. It's fun.

I would love to know more about what were the learnings early on as you started to work with these different cultures, especially working in Asia, for example. What did you discover about the biases that they have about other people? Here you are, somebody who's coming in from the outside. Were you seen as someone who they would have to either avoid or not tell the full story? Were there things about your presence that created a bias for them?

I was 1 of 2 Caucasian women in the city in Malaysia where I was teaching. It was little kids turning around, staring at me during lunch and that kind of thing. That was a good experience for me to know what that feels like. It wasn't that they thought I was bad. It was different. In fact, coming as a professor, the learning and educators are revered. That gave me a high ranking. We think about not only the color of our skin, our nationality, our gender and our generation but also where we rank. That was nice. When I was entering into a contract with a company based in Japan, I always asked about culture.

That's so crucial for coaches and for leaders with their teams to do a cultural check-in. I said, "I'm from the West. I tend to be a direct communicator. I understand your culture is normally less direct. Would you like for me to tone it down or show up myself? Our leaders are working globally. We have offices in the US. They need to know how to handle that type of communication. Please show up your direct self." If I had not asked that, Tony, and show up my usual direct self, then I could, in some Asian cultures, be considered rude and offensive.

It's a good thing to do a check-in. I check in with coaching clients. I asked them to tell me some about their culture. I tell them some about my culture, and then we have a conversation about how direct we can be with each other and what kind of culture we want to have. Is it more like theirs? Is it more like mine? Is it some kind of a blend? That also includes celebration. I'm someone who likes to celebrate successes with clients. I had one client in the US who told me I wasn't celebrating enough and so we did it more.

I had one of my Japanese clients said, "I love it when you tie my success to my vision but just to congratulate me doesn't mean anything to me. We in our team meetings clap for each other and we celebrate as a team but I don't need that from you. I just want you to continue to tie it back to my progress towards my vision." I said, "Thank you for telling me that." Another piece is if I were to ever say or do something that bothers you or offend you, not will you let me know because that would be considered rude and offensive for some people to do. How will you let me know? People have said I might be silent. That would be a time for me to check-in and explore it a little bit.

Unlock all potential so that we can all live in prosperity and peace.

There's something about the way of what you are describing here, which is amazing. It's insightful because it means a lot for the people who are reading to think about how you are setting the tone for any relationship upfront. It's like agreeing on expectations so that you don't get to the place where you offend later or you create something that might be uncertain later on. The more upfront you can create that expectation, that agreement on how we best serve each other so that we can show up in the best way for each other. That upfrontness is important because it could be, "I will run by the golden rule, which treats everyone like I want to be treated or I could run by the platinum rule." They are both great but ultimately it's important to check in with what is the expectation. In this case, the more you are clear on that, the better off you both are.

You work with teams, too, don't you? I know you work with leaders, Tony. Frequently in an organization or a team, one of their written values is respect or maybe even spoken about but what does that mean?  With the example that I gave you, respect in some cultures might be, "I will only speak in a team meeting if someone asks me a question if the elders have all spoken or everyone who has a higher rank than me has spoken." In another culture, you see that person and you think they are not contributing. What's going on? They are just sitting there in the meeting. That can be a role disconnect. Respect has to be defined. Tell me what it means.

One of the other things I love about this is that it makes people want to slow down. Everyone in business seems to be in this place where they are like, "Let's move fast. What's next? Let’s get to the agreement. Let's move forward." Slowing down and replace that urgency with the mindfulness of creating the right pace for the client or whoever it is that you are building that relationship with is going to pay off in the long run because you will have that ability to say, "We know each other. We know what each other needs,” and then we can move forward in a better way.

It can also speed it up. I can give you a quick client example of that. I had a female leader that was referred to me because her boss said, "You’ve got to learn to speak up more and to step into your leadership more." In my written documents and our initial conversations was the question about culture. This person is from my state, in other about my age, they are my gender but had a different experience because they grew up in a rural community, affirming community. My parents were both doctors. What she grew up seeing were the men spoke and the women were in the background or even in the kitchen, cooking, cleaning up and not even in the conversation.

She recognized that right away when I asked her about culture, that was something she wanted to shift, this idea that women should be in the background. That was something she would need to get past to fully step into her leadership, which is something that she wanted to do also. It wasn't just what someone was telling her needed to happen. We’ve got to that in the first session that way or otherwise, it might have taken a little bit to get to what's underneath. You are not stepping up.

These stories are what drive the point home, too. It's important to share that. With the location, you are in the same place but here are two different upbringings and how different that makes the person, how they show up and how you need to deal with the person, too. It's amazing. I want to hear more about how you made the transition from being the professor, being in the academia world to being in the world of running your own business because that happened at some point. It's not usually an easy transition. What were the pain points?

Besides teaching, I had a full-time practice as a family therapist, a systems therapist. My post-graduate work is in Systems Theory. I read about coaching and systems journal. I was like, "That sounds neat." I have loved making that transition, still being able to use that background about communication and systems work, looking at the big picture and how everything fits together but doing it in a little bit different way, different setting and different people. It's seeing everyone as creative, resourceful and whole, rather than having to give them a diagnosis in my former life. In the practice that I was in, I was in an office with a psychiatrist. Some of my business referrals came from the psychiatrist and some from insurance companies and other referrals that I had made. I didn't have a clear idea about what the switch was going to be, where the clients would come from it.

At the time, 1998, it was the attraction theory. You put it out there and people were going to come to you, not exactly. I didn't have a business and marketing background so it took me a little while. I had a couple of years where I did everything, the teaching, the systems work and starting my coaching business. I thought, “This is crazy,” because I work with people in life balance, “Where is mine? I’ve got too many things going on.” I probably waited too long to get help on the business marketing side. I have gotten more help and education. That has been helpful. I was fortunate that I was so passionate. I still am about coaching, as a pioneer and early adapter of it in my community. People heard about me, called me in, interviewed me and said, "Would you like to work with our environmental protection office with leaders?" That contract lasted seven years. Things like that that helped build it up.

Thank you so much for sharing that. Sometimes it's very vulnerable to share those moments of the journey to get there. One thing about it is that when people get into a field like coaching, it's the eclecticness of bringing all the pieces together of your background and including the whole concept of transcending. You are including all these pieces of your past. You are moving past them but including them, that's what makes you the coach you are now or the person you choose to help people. You are not just one thing. You are multiple things. You are the mix of all those things coming together, which what makes it interesting, which I love. There's also this element of having that preparation, constantly showing up and meeting opportunities. That's where success comes into play. You have to continue to be in preparation and keep on showing up. Ultimately, that's where you start to see that it pays off.

Coaching has become more established, accepted and understood. It was in '98, which helps too. At that time, people would look at me and say, "Are you a coach? You don't look like a coach. You are not that athletic." They thought it was still but I was doing the counseling or the therapy. I was like, "This is something different. I'm working with leaders and teams now.” After a few years, the training program that I graduated from asked me to start helping train and mentor their students. I’ve got into mentoring and supervision also. I'm serving on the global board because I had the intercultural experience and the board needed to be moving in that direction and not seeing so much as North American.

There's something at the core of all the things you do, which is this ability to see people deeply beyond what's on the surface. It started in early childhood and the curiosity about why we all can’t be seen for who we are on the inside. It is powerful. When I see that in you, I see them in myself. I feel this deep wanting for fairness and how people are treated. At the core, that's why certain people get into the fields they do because they want everyone to feel like they can have their voice shared and to be treated fairly.

That touches my heart, Tony, when you say that. My tagline is to unlock all potential so that we can all live in prosperity and peace. That means everybody. How can we do that? Each person in each community on our planet to be prosperous. That doesn't mean to me just financial but healthy, vibrant and thriving.

I have been thinking a lot about the UN goals because you teach the UN leaders. There are these goals that we have. Sometimes I want to look at it and say, "Which UN goals do I want to attach myself to?" There's so much more that we can do collectively. How can we look at those goals and say, "Which ones am I truly serving in the work that I do?" Part of it is looking at the people who I'm impacting and how they are serving those goals. You see the ripple effect that we have as coaches and as thought leaders. That's powerful.

We were going to have to talk some more about that. How can I be making the greatest impact? I'm a part of a Global Shapers coaching program. Young global leaders identified through the world economic forum.

Don't wait too long to ask for help. If you don't know something, look for help because you can run out of passion.

As we come closer to the end, I wanted to ask, as you look back on your journey and you think about all the things you have done, which have been such a massive impact, what had been the lessons you have learned about yourself that you want to share with people? Maybe some key insights about yourself.

When I was on my three-month journey in Bali and helping with a coach training there, it was on deep transformational work in polarities. We all have polarities. It's not that we want to give up either end of the pole but find out where to be at any given time. My central polarity, which I had some idea about before going into that but clarified it is this sense of being in control, which is a false reality. As an entrepreneur, a business owner, you feel like I should be in control or someone should be in control of all of this or try to be taking control. Relaxing, letting go and trusting. Where am I at any given time between those poles? There are times where you need to step up, grab on and step into control so the ship doesn't sink. A lot of the time, it works better to relax, trust and let go.

That's my message for the day. That landed for me the sense of like, "Where do I need to let go of control? Where do I have to maybe take a sense of where I need more control?" I love when you talk about polarity because there are so many polarities in leadership and in life that we are always on. We need to check in with ourselves to see where we are at. I have one more question for you. We are going to lighten the mood a little bit. What is one book or maybe multiple books that have had an impact on you and why?

They are primarily spiritual books. It's more frequently by authors Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, Margaret Benefiel and Margaret Wheatley. I love poet David Whyte, Ed Hayes, who was like a modern-day Kansas mystic, believe it or not. In terms of books, it's God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu. Thinking about the work that he did and others in South Africa to fight for what's fair, what's right and to transform that culture. If you have ever seen him and the Dalai Lama, they giggle like children, that sense of joy and playfulness. That helps me, too, about being around toddlers. They are learning so much. I want to continue to learn but we can have fun and giggle in the process, too.

It's so powerful to know that these men and women who have been through and have seen so much darkness yet, still manage to see that life is not about being in that dark place all the time. It's about finding the lightness, humanity and hope in everything that could drag us down. They see that humanity in everything. That's why they smile. They keep that uplifting attitude, which is awesome. We need that. That's powerful. Marilyn, this has been so amazing. I feel deeply touched by our conversation and your insights. I'm honored that you came to the show.

Thank you so much for this. It's a privilege to be with you, Tony. I felt touched, too. I want to follow up. Let's see what we can do to impact those UN goals.

Before we let you go, I want to make sure I give you a chance to let people know where they can find you. What's the best location for you if people want to reach out?

My website is That's the best place.

Buy her book, which is a fantastic read, Breaking Free from Bias. This is an emotional episode. Thank you again. Thanks to the readers for coming on the journey. I know you are leaving with so many great insights and a nice warm heart. Please reach out to Marilyn. Have a chat with her and help us to make an impact in the world together.

Thank you, Tony, and the readers.

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About Marilyn O'Hearne

Marilyn O’Hearne, MA, and International Coach Federation Master Certified Coach is a globally experienced, culturally intelligent executive and leadership, team and mentor coach who has worked with leaders and coaches in more than 40 countries.

As an innovative, visionary thought partner, Marilyn sees herself as a co-pilot by your side, partnering with you to precisely map out the journey ahead, identify and overcome potential obstacles, make sure everyone else is on board and arriving on time, and stay focused, on course as you further develop your team, your organization, and yourself. As pilot and co-pilot, we keep the big, aerial picture in mind, incorporating global perspectives and a systems approach.

And as you fly out into the unknown sea of change, Marilyn’s faith and gentle strength provide a firm launching pad that does not jettison off, but continues with you as you rocket to transformation!

With Marilyn at their side, leaders, teams & ICF coaches move from overwhelm and uncertainty of our rapidly changing and culturally complex world to clarity, focus and confidence, unlocking prosperity and higher individual and organizational impact and success.

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