Greg Nees, Ph.D.
Author, Coach & Consultant
Crossing the Sahara
After graduating from UCLA with a degree in psychology, I left the U.S. for a low-budget trip around the world. I travelled around Europe for several months before heading south and crossing over to Tunisia. After hitchhiking through the Sahara, I arrived in Kano where I realized I’d already spent most of my money. I was lucky to find a job and for three months I worked on a construction site in the Sahel region of Nigeria. After replenishing my reserves, I travelled around West Africa where I changed my plans. I returned to Europe and took up residence in Germany.
That time in Africa was my first real encounter with a radically different culture. It was also my first encounter with the deep poverty and social injustice that plagues many parts of the world. I was shocked to see truckloads of young boys, some who couldn’t have been much older than 10, arriving every morning to spend long days digging ditches with pick and shovel in the hot sun. This was just one of many gut-wrenching sights I saw as I discovered the abysmal conditions so many of the world’s people are forced to live and work in.
My time in Africa began transforming me from a self-centered, young white man from one of the most affluent countries in the world into a more mature, more compassionate human being. If Africa was the crucible that melted my limited world view and overly narrow identity, Germany was the new, bigger mold into which I was being poured. The 13 years I spent there completed my transformation into a global citizen whose work as a cultural psychologist has allowed me to grow and flourish personally, while also helping others to do the same.
I was accepted as a student by the Johannes Gutenberg University where I studied German, Spanish and applied linguistics. As I learned German, I began to realize how learning a particular language when we are young and highly impressionable predisposes us to see the world in a particular way. It also influences the growth of our personalities. Learning to speak, think and dream in a new language opened my mind in surprising new ways and allowed me to learn to see the world anew. This learning to see the world anew was facilitated by Heinz Göhring, one of my professors, who became a very important mentor for me.
Construction work in Nigeria
College days in Germany
Heinz showed me how my unconscious American programming was getting in the way when I tried to communicate with Germans. As my self-awareness and my German skills grew, so too did my ability to live and work with Germans. While there were mishaps along the way, I began to feel more and more at home there. That was an exciting time for me and it seemed like I was being given another chance to develop more of the potential I had been born with. New parts of my personality emerged as did new social skills and new ideas about what I wanted to do with my life.
After a number of years in Germany, I began teaching English as a foreign language. I was genuinely surprised to discover that I loved teaching. And as I helped my students learn English it became ever clearer to me that while the language barrier is the first hurdle to cross-cultural communication, a deeper and more subtle hurdle is the mind distance created by cultural differences.
As that realization deepened, I decided to return to the U.S. and begin the graduate studies I had put on hold when I first left those many years before. I enrolled in the School of Communication at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Under the guidance of Professor Kristine Fitch, I began delving into the study of human communication and the role that cultures play in how we see the world and how we communicate. For my dissertation, I chose to do ethnographic research on German communication styles.
That research took me back to Germany and became the basis for my first book, Germany—Unraveling an Enigma. Since 2000, Enigma has been a robust seller and it has helped its many readers better understand Germany and the Germans. Like me, Enigma is showing its age, but we’ve both been blessed with good genes and for a solid understanding of Germany, the Germans and the German way of life, it is still one of the best books you can read.
At the same time that I began my doctoral studies, I also began working for a training company in Boulder that helped prepare American executives and their families for overseas assignments. I found it deeply satisfying to help others prepare for culture shock and the challenges of adjustment to a new culture. It was also highly stimulating to be working with the other trainers because we all had the common experience of having lived and worked in radically different cultures and we had much to teach each other.
As my experience and reputation grew, I began getting requests from corporations to help their employees and managers learn more about German and American cultural differences. Since then promoting trans-Atlantic cooperation has been one of the pillars of my work as an interculturalist.
Leading cultural intelligence workshops for high potentials
As I gained more and more experience, requests for other services grew. One of my most rewarding assignments was helping design and deliver workshops for young, high potential candidates who were expected to become the future leaders at a major international engineering firm. Later I began working with multicultural teams composed of members from around the world. The goal was to help them reduce mind distance, resolve conflicts and develop the cultural intelligence that would enable them to achieve their potential.
A major milestone in my professional development came in 2011 when I was called to lead a seminar for the principals of several German international schools. That workshop led to me working with several individual German international schools and I discovered the great satisfaction I got from sharing my knowledge and skills with other educators who would act as multipliers to pass this knowledge on to their young students.
The young people of today face challenges and opportunities that my generation never dreamed of. My many experiences have convinced me that if we are ever to create a more peaceful, just and verdant world, the next generations of humans will need to become more culturally, socially and emotionally intelligent. In other words, they are going to need what Daniel Siegel calls mindsight, the awareness of how their own minds and the minds of others work. Developing mindsight requires that we understand the role that our families and cultures of origin play in the way we experience ourselves, others and the world we live in.
What my years of work as a cultural psychologist have taught me is that the social and emotional programming we internalized when our brains were young and malleable is often the source of our biggest challenges. We, humans, are emotional beings who have learned to use language and logic to think rationally. We are not fundamentally rational beings who just become emotional when others trigger us. When we recognize and accept this fact, we can develop the mindsight we need to raise and educate our young so they are more able to live healthier lives and to manage the many challenges that are bound to come their way.
What I have found personally is that as I develop more mindsight and self-awareness, I grow both socially and emotionally. As I do, the mind distance between me and other people becomes less problematic and I find myself becoming calmer and more confident. Paradoxically, as my empathy and sense of connection with more and more people grow, so too does a deep sense of self-acceptance and inner freedom.
To share more widely what I have learned about mindsight and socio-emotional intelligence, I wrote Connecting Hearts and Minds – Insights, Skills and Best Practices for Dealing with Differences. To date, the reviews of Connecting Hearts and Minds have all been excellent and if you are looking for a book to help you develop your own mindsight and socio-emotional intelligence, I urge you read it and then spread the word about it.
I hope this brief summary gives you a clearer idea of who I am and what I’m about. If you have questions, comments or are in need of my services, please contact me.