Many thanks to Benjamin Smith, Ph.D., linguist, intercultural consultant and trainer, and owner of Broad Imagination LLC, for this guest post.
“Recently, I was invited to lead a cultural sensitivity training for a company facing some key human resource challenges. I was given a little background information prior to my arrival, but stopped the director short as he was bringing me up-to-speed in our meeting, in order to be able to gather information during the needs assessment without preconceived notions.
The printed workbook and facilitator guide that I use to supplement my training is produced by Cultural Detective®, a company with decades of success in the intercultural field. I find that their philosophy dovetails well with mine in that they help me guide users through a process of understanding the “Lenses” through which they see the world.
To accomplish this objective, Cultural Detective® presents Values Lenses—for key cultures such as nationality, gender, spiritual tradition, age or generation, and sexual orientation—as well as Personal Values Lenses.
I feel blessed to have worked with such a remarkable group of individuals who are committed to improving their intercultural communication skills. One of the most important takeaways for me from the training was realizing that obtaining a better understanding of where we come from refines our assessment of others, and sheds a positive light on helping us accurately interpret others’ behavior.
Obtaining a better understanding of where we come from, refines our assessment of others and sheds a positive light on helping us accurately interpret others’ behavior.
My approach to the project included one-on-one interviews with each participant during and at the conclusion of the training. Thanks to valuable advice from more experienced interculturalists, the interviews enabled me to gather useful information—people often reveal things in private that they are reticent to share with a group. These insights informed the content and delivery of the training.
I deliberately engaged my strength of connectedness as I spoke with people individually. The interviews afforded me the opportunity to create a space where I could genuinely listen to participants and tailor the training to their concerns. I typically schedule a follow-up interview after the training to assess what learning has taken place.
In this intimate setting, prior to and after the training, I find that, while people are eager to talk about what everyone else is doing wrong, they are not so quick to admit their own faults. They often overemphasize their exhaustive efforts to resolve intercultural conflicts, and minimize the efforts of their colleagues.
Through appreciative inquiry and inductive listening, I can facilitate peoples’ ability to see the things they were not initially aware of, and shed light on areas where their efforts can be more effective, to gain traction and avoid spinning their wheels. These interviews are powerful supplements to the training itself, enabling participants to apply their learning and develop personal development plans.
I designed several activities for the group sessions during which participants would be able to showcase their cultures and articulate their Personal Values Lens—the glass through which they view the world, colored by the values they embrace.
It was refreshing to see how people listened to and celebrated the cultural traditions shared by others through songs, recipes, and inside family jokes. There were several points when we analyzed family stories that had been passed through the generations, and examined the values those stories contain. It was amazing to see how participants recognized the uniqueness of each individual and what they had to share. It was also a great reminder of how anxious people are to be recognized for their contributions.
It was amazing to see how those present recognized the uniqueness of each individual and what they had to share. It was also a great reminder of how anxious people are to be recognized for their contributions.
Another facet of my company’s approach—Broad Imagination LLC—supported by the Cultural Detective® Model, consists of helping clients develop solutions themselves through a facilitated discussion. A Cultural Detective® session is not a passive chat that is forgotten when we all go home. It requires me, as a facilitator, to be present—to truly listen to and push participants for practical solutions. People tend to skirt difficult topics and slip into euphemisms or clichés as a way of avoiding the “elephant in the room.” I appreciated the courage of those who were willing to name their fears, explore them, and address them publicly.
Some “aha” moments for trainees in this session included:
- Common sense is not the same as cultural sense. What we may consider to be general knowledge or a logical conclusion is not shared by everyone. Knowing that different cultures have a unique perspective on any given cultural encounter helps us open our minds and make room for unexpected conclusions.
- All countries do not have the same value for “ethnic exoticness” and, therefore, respect. For example, in the USA, one may appreciate a Mexican flag being displayed in a cubicle, while the display of a Canadian flag might not earn the same appreciation. It is far more common that the more “exotic” and underrepresented the culture, the more interest we take in their displays of nationalism and pride.
- It doesn’t matter how much time someone has spent living among other cultures, biases persist and are hard to shake. It is one thing to spend time abroad, and another to make the effort to go outside our comfort zones to truly understand another’s cultural Lens.
- Language has a way of revealing lack of trust in an organization. When there is low trust, it does not matter what a person does, it can still touch off our sensibilities. Being offended that someone is speaking an unfamiliar language in our presence may cause us to bristle because we suspect that they are talking about us. It may not be that the language is threatening or that there are unsavory nonverbal cues, rather simply the fact that the language is spoken in a low-trust environment results in a negative spiral of lower trust.
- All we can really do is observe behavior. When we seek to explain why someone did something or what their motives were, we are venturing into judgment and assumptions. Assuming the best positive intent behind observed words and actions helps mitigate potential incorrect negative perceptions and opens our mind to collaborative solutions.
The Cultural Detective® Model emphasizes three core competencies: Subjective Culture (understanding ourselves); Cultural Literacy (our ability to understand others); and Building Cultural Bridges (the ability for two or more people to collaborate productively across cultures). These competencies are taught in a variety of ways, but I have found that when learners participate in this discovery of cultural identity through provocative discussions, they overcome their anxieties and find that the issues they once believed to be insurmountable obstacles are really stepping-stones to greater appreciation and collaboration.
I love the fact that this particular client’s mission focused on “creating a positive model.” That is precisely what intercultural training provides. The training that Broad Imagination aims to deliver, and which Cultural Detective® helped accomplish, created a model worthy of emulation, one that will serve as a touch stone for future positive intercultural encounters.
Armed with an appreciation for the rich and unique cultural heritage that each employee brings to the table (representing a plethora of values and cultural influences), participants can now implement specific strategies with their colleagues, and try new approaches to the same situations—with improved results, greater personal satisfaction and increased intercultural confidence.