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How My Interfaith Leadership Skills Show Up in Everyday Life

Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

It was the first week of March 2020, and I was slowly making my way through a hotel conference room, meeting local business owners and learning about each other’s businesses. It was the city’s biggest annual networking event, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. 

Juggling a cup of cheap hotel coffee and the growing stack of business cards that I was collecting from each person I met, I handed each person one of my own cards. But instead of telling them all about my business and the services I offer, I was asking them all about theirs:  

“What does your business do?” 

“Who are your ideal customers?” 

By the end of each conversation, we would both be smiling and promising each other that we’d get coffee together sometime soon. 

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Later that evening, I realized that my life would be massively different––and not for the better––had I not spent so much of college learning and practicing how to be an interfaith leader. Really, how to have conversations and effect positive change across lines of difference. 

I reflected on the day’s networking event and thought more deeply about why I was so intent on learning so much about others’ businesses rather than giving the spiel about my own.  

Over the next weeks, as the pandemic became more real, I followed up and met (virtually) with almost everyone I met there. And from those meetings, I’ve since established a variety of different relationships that do a variety of different things:  

  • Referring potential customers to each other as a way to support local small businesses 
  • Collaborating on various projects geared towards helping other small business owners during the pandemic 

  • Advocating for an end to police brutality and for concrete steps towards addressing systemic racism 

  • Creating an online directory of local queer-owned businesses so that we can support the LGBTQ+ community 

And as I took a step back to look at how these relationships were established and eventually transformed into concrete positive action, one thing became abundantly clear:  

This was my interfaith training in practice. 

It may not be specific to interfaith cooperation because it’s not centered around faith and religion, but make no mistake––they’re the exact same elements of effective interfaith leadership: 

Appreciative knowledge refers to the fact that interfaith leaders need to have a working knowledge of other faiths. Because of my interfaith training, I am hard-wired to focus first on learning about whomever it is I’m speaking with. In the context of the networking event, my goal was to understand the people I was speaking with and their businesses. 

When interfaith leaders have appreciative knowledge, they are then able to identify shared values. During the event, I was speaking with a financial planner named Sally. I almost never work with financial planners as clients, but because I focused first on learning about her and her business, I was able to see that both of us were really passionate about helping small business owners succeed. 

The conversation could have stopped there, but we had already discovered a belief that we both hold dearly, and if we had ended the conversation there, we wouldn’t have been able to take any sort of action. 

I knew from my interfaith training that conversation and dialogue are vital to building relationships, but I also knew that it didn’t stop there. What if we took that shared belief and actually did something with it? 

I had a large audience of small-business owners, and Sally had a lot of valuable insights that I knew my audience needed to hear. I asked Sally if she’d be interested in hosting a webinar on financial planning for small business owners. She said yes, and we were able to put together an educational presentation that concretely helped the thousands of people on my email list. 

As I move through each day, I’m constantly reminded of how my interfaith training with IFYC shows up in nearly all of my conversations and interactions. But above all, I’m reminded of the change we can make when we do three things:  

  1. Listen first, talk second 
  1. Find common ground 

  1. Take action together 

It may seem that the world is more divided than ever, but if we do these three things, maybe we could all come a little closer together––coming across massive lines of difference like faith and politics, yes, but also in every conversation and relationship that we find ourselves in. 

Jacob Ratliff is a former IFYC Coach and currently serves as the marketing director at ashevilleMARKETER in Asheville, North Carolina. You can follow him on Twitter @jacobratliff

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.