Absent but Implicit

“Diversity: The art of thinking independently, together.” – Malcom Forbes

The Future of Work discourse is muddled with varied opinions. It seems that, amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the working world is both fearful and excited about anything from AI, to up-skilling, and the lack of ability to ‘disconnect‘ from the workplace. But, one thing seems certain: the business world is becoming increasingly globalised, resulting in culturally diverse work spaces.

Navigating the complex communication landscape of the workplace can be difficult. Even more so, when this has to be managed across cultural barriers. Narrative Practice offers individuals a means of professional self-development, through which they can skilfully navigate difficult situations; such as those which may arise due to cultural boundaries.

Visionary Future, Truthful Reality

“Workplace cultural diversity and productivity are closely related. But the potential benefits can only be realised if organisations foster a conducive atmosphere for their diverse workforce.” – The Conversation 2017

Australia is a celebrated multicultural country. Almost one third of Australians were born overseas, with new arrivals steadily increasing (ABS 2017). In turn, our workplaces are just as culturally diverse, with 13% of workers originating from Non-English Speaking countries and 23% born overseas (FECCA 2013). Cultural diversity in the workplace is highly regarded because of its potential benefits, such as increased productivity, improved problem solving, and increased empathy between employees (Saxena 2014 p.83). But, how realistic is an all-embracing, highly productive, culturally diverse workplace?

According to The ConversationAustralian workplaces “do not yet reflect the level of cultural and ethnic diversity in the broader community”.  That is, we have adopted the idea of a multicultural workplace, but may be lacking in professionally managing it. This may be due to implicit biases held by individuals when they partake in cross cultural communication (Lieber 2009). So, to overcome language barriers, and clashes of perceptions relating to culture, which hinder workplace productivity (Saxena 2014 p.84), something needs to change.

And this, is where Interculturalism, and Narrative Practice combine.

People Are Not Their Problems

“If we accept the proposal that people can only give a particular account of their lives through drawing distinctions with what their experience is not, then we can tune our ears to hear not only what the problem is, but also to hear what is ‘‘absent but implicit’’ in their descriptions – what the problem is not.” – (Carey et al. 2009 p.329)

Michael White developed Narrative Practice as an agent through which individuals can re-author the stories of their lives, and learn to separate problems from people (Dulwhich Centre 2018). The ‘absent but implicit’ focuses on utilising “double listening” to understand what is implicit in people’s expressions of frustration (Freedman 2012 p.2). Thus, can be a useful tool in aiding individuals to reposition their thinking about others’ problems. Especially regarding Interculturalism, which prompts members of the majority to “question their own assumptions and open channels of communication and interaction with minorities” (The Conversation 2017).

Whilst, this adds value to the conversation about solutions to cross cultural conflict, some aspects of narrative practices can’t be transferred across cultures (Dulwich Centre 2018). Thus, it becomes the responsibility of the individual to learn to listen differently to accounts of problematic stories and reflect upon what values aren’t being upheld. And, to re-author their own stories to reposition their thinking about workplace interactions.

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Narrative Practice, in Practice

When reflecting on issues with cross-cultural communication in the workplace, the first thing that came to mind was my time spent working as a waitress in an Italian Restaurant. It was a family business, owned by an Italian couple, and the workplace was very culturally diverse (we welcomed staff members from Australia, Egypt, Nepal, Russia, and of course, Italy). In fact, for a long time, I was the only Australian-born waitress, and one of the only staff members that was fluent in English. This made communication difficult, as the cultural divide between our communication styles was very clear.

I thoroughly enjoyed that job, and got along with other staff members. But, learning to adapt my verbal and non-verbal communication to suit a culture of which I was not even remotely familiar with was a confronting process. The challenges this ensued included misunderstandings, disagreements, and a lot of stress on both ends.

I distinctly remember many situations where verbal communication between myself and other staff members just was not working. It would take minutes to relay a simple message, because we used syntax very differently, had difficulty understanding each other’s accents, and had issues with translation.

So, if this issue of cultural communication barriers was frustrating me, and impacting my workplace productivity, I could start to reflect upon what the issue was not. Here, I would say that the “alternative” (Carey et al. 2009 p.320) to my issue would be cultural sensitivity and an active effort to be empathetic.

After reflection, I was able to grasp that although this frustrated me, I only experienced these (marginal) issues within the workplace, while my workmates experienced greater hardships within many aspects of their everyday lives. From here, I was able to act according to the values which underlied my frustrations (understanding and empathy) and use them as motivation to improve the situation. Our workplace communication gradually improved as I began learning some Italian and became more conscious of how my interactions would be perceived in their culture.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Ultimately, we cannon praise the prospect of the multicultural workplace whilst doing little to accomodate for cultural differences within the organisation. This is a change which begins with ourselves, as, the struggles of minorities are not theirs alone to change. Using Narrative Practice, we can de-centralise our thinking about cultural communications. By using the absent-but-implicit technique, we can re-author our problematic narratives by externalising what the problem is not. Thus, allowing us to consider our narratives in relation to the narratives of others, and create a culture of empathy and understanding in the workplace.


Abs.gov.au. (2018). 2071.0 – Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia – Stories from the Census, 2016. [online] Available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Cultural%20Diversity%20Data%20Summary~30 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

Carey, M., Walther, S. and Russell, S. (2009). The Absent but Implicit: A Map to Support Therapeutic Enquiry. Family Process, 48(3), pp.319-331.

The Conversation. (2017). How racism and a lack of diversity can harm productivity in our workplaces. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-racism-and-a-lack-of-diversity-can-harm-productivity-in-our-workplaces-73119 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

The Conversation. (2017). Interculturalism: how diverse societies can do better than passive tolerance. [online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/interculturalism-how-diverse-societies-can-do-better-than-passive-tolerance-72874 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

Fecca.org.au. (2018). [online] Available at: http://fecca.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/factsheet-2-the-australian-workforce1.pdf [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

Freedman, J. (2012). Explorations of the Absent but Implicit. Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 4, pp.1-10.

Humanrights.gov.au. (2018). Face the facts: Cultural Diversity | Australian Human Rights Commission. [online] Available at: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/face-facts-cultural-diversity [Accessed 29 Aug. 2018].

Lieber, L. (2009). The hidden dangers of implicit bias in the workplace. Employment Relations Today, 36(2), pp.93-98.

Saxena, A. (2014). Workforce Diversity: A Key to Improve Productivity. Procedia Economics and Finance, 11, pp.76-85.

The Dulwich Centre. (2018). Commonly-asked questions about narrative approaches to therapy, community work, and psychosocial support – The Dulwich Centre. [online] Available at: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/articles-about-narrative-therapy/common-questions-narrative-therapy/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2018].

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