The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Differences That Make a Difference: Defining Self in an Intercultural Context

Authored by The Reverend Terri C. Pilarski, M.Div., M.L.S.W., Christ Episcopal Church, Rector

“The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) is the premier cross-culturally valid assessment for building cultural competence in your school or organization” Mitchell R. Hammer, Ph.D.

“I believe and teach that the family therapist usually has the same problems in his (or her) own family that are in the family that he (or she) sees professionally, and that he has a responsibility to define himself in his own family if he is to function adequately in his professional work.” (quote by Murray Bowen in Bowen Systems Secrets by Michael Kerr, M.D.)

In 2018 and I embarked on a journey of study on intercultural competency, anticipating that Bowen Theory would play a role in this study. The hope was that I, as the Rector, would be able to lead my English-speaking Episcopal congregation, comprised primarily of white people of European descent, into forming an effective partnership with an Arabic speaking congregation of people from Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, with whom we were going to share a building. What developed from the study informed my hypothesis that congregational anxiety can be lowered when the congregation establishes its sense of purpose, it’s mission. In particular I have been exploring how commitment to a clearly stated mission of the congregation can function in the emotional process of a congregation in much the same way as a person who defines “one’s-self” functions in a family.

In his book, Bowen Theory Secrets, Kerr outlines six ingredients crucial to the success of functioning more as a self in the family. (page 168). These are:

  1. Observe and think about emotional process
  2. Discriminate between thinking and feeling
  3. Recognize the impact of anxiety on functioning
  4. Engage emotionally difficult situations
  5. Maintain more of a self with others
  6. Theoretical thinking and scientific inquiry

The key component of one’s capacity to engage these six ingredients and define self is the ability to adapt. Adaptation is also the key component of one’s capacity to develop intercultural competency, according to the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI). My first step in intercultural competency was to be trained as a Qualified Administrator in the IDI, a widely used tool that helps individuals and organizations understand where they are, developmentally, in their capacity for intercultural competency. In other words, how capable am I, and or my organization, in adapting to people of different cultures? Adaption does not mean becoming like the other person or culture. Rather, like defining self in a family, it means to have a clear sense of self while also allowing the other to be who they are. IDI describes this as recognizing the differences that make a difference.

The IDI is a survey of 50 questions that takes about 15 minutes to complete. It then scores responses and provides a profile and a plan. The profile is an assessment of a person’s capacity to recognize cultural differences. It provides two important pieces of data, where one thinks one is in one’s cultural competency, and one’s actual developmental stage of competency, according to this tool. The stages of development grow across five levels: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, and Adaptation. The IDI has been widely used by universities, corporations, and the US military, to help individuals and groups understand where they are developmentally, and how to increase competency in order to work more effectively in multi-cultural contexts.

As I learned about and applied the IDI, I began to wonder if there was a correlation between the development stages of intercultural competency and the stages of development in one’s capacity to define self. In particular I wondered about how one’s capacity for adaptation functions in developing intercultural competency and in defining self. In both contexts the capacity for adaptation requires one to engage in the six crucial ingredients that Kerr defines. Developing intercultural competency, the capacity to be in relationship with people who are very different from one’s self, requires the ability to discriminate between feelings and thinking, recognize the impact of anxiety on functioning, engage emotionally difficult situations, and maintain more of a self with others.

The ability to apply Bowen Systems Theory to the development of intercultural competency enabled me to engage scientific inquiry with theory, enhancing each application in my thinking about adaptation. Dan Papero’s Model for Family Assessment considers adaptation as a benchmark for determining the health of a family system. Leslie Fox in her work applying Bowen Theory to organizations (Leading a Business in Anxious Times) also considers adaptation as a critical element in an organization’s functioning. Adaptation is key to successful thriving in individuals, families, and organizations. Scientists have known that adaptation is a fundamental element in nature. Species survival depends on the capacity to adapt.  (

We live in an increasingly diverse reality which is influenced by social media, ease of transportation, and global economics and politics. That people struggle to adapt to the diversity we are encountering is revealed in the tension, anxiety, polarization and rise of authoritarianism being seen world-wide and in this country. However, it is possible to navigate the differences one encounters with less anxiety and more curiosity. Adaptation does not mean that one loses one’s self. Nor does it mean that others have to lose themselves. Successful adaption can take place when one is able to be both a self as well as value others for who they are. This is the approach I have applied in my context, helping my congregation define itself more clearly without requiring the Arabic congregation to become like us, nor for us to become like them. Learning to value the differences of each deepens our experience of life and stretches our capacity for adaptation, key ingredients to not only survive but thrive. In an age when congregations are dying, Bowen Systems Theory and the IDI have afforded me both a theory and an approach to scientific inquiry that inform how I guide the congregation in defining self through our mission in an intercultural context.

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