Cultural Sensitivity Training – What does it look like?

IMG_6315This past week I was invited to lead some Cultural Sensitivity training for a company facing some HR challenges for which they felt this exercise would be appropriate. I was given a little background prior to my arrival, but stopped the director short as he was bringing me up-to-speed in our meeting in order to form my own perspective with no preconceived notions.

The printed workbook and facilitator guide that I use to supplement my Broad Imagination 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 they present and explain Values lenses — or perspectives — as well as personal values lenses. One of the most important takeaways from this training for me was that obtaining a better understanding of where we come from refines our assessment of others and helps shed a positive light on their observed behaviors.

I feel blessed to have worked with such a remarkable group of individuals who are committed to improving their intercultural communication skills. My modus operandi includes one-on-one interviews with each participant during and at the conclusion of the training. Thanks to valuable advice from more experienced interculturalists, I find that people reveal things in private that they are reticent to share with the group. These insights inform the content and delivery of the training. I deliberately engage my strength of Connectedness as I speak with people individually. This affords me the opportunity to create a space where I can genuinely listen and tailor the training to their concerns. I typically schedule a follow-up interview afterwards to assess what learning has taken place. In this intimate setting 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 overemphasize their exhaustive efforts to resolve intercultural conflicts and minimize the efforts of their colleagues. Through appreciative inquiry and inductive listening, I am able to help people 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.

In the group sessions I design several activities where they can showcase their culture and articulate the lens through which they view the world colored by the values they embrace. It was refreshing to see how people listened and celebrated the cultural traditions shared by others through songs, recipes, and inside family jokes. There were several points where we took apart family stories that had been passed through the generations and examined the values they contain. It is amazing to see how those present recognized the uniqueness of each individual and what they had to share. It is a great reminder of how anxious people are to be recognized for their contributions.

Another facet of the Broad Imagination approach supported by the Cultural Detective™ model consists of helping clients come up with the solution themselves by facilitating a fruitful discussion. It 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 and push 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.

IMG_6318Some “aha” moments included:

1) 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 take on any given cultural encounter helps us open our minds and make room for unexpected conclusions.

2) All countries do not have the same value for ethnic exoticness and therefore respect. For example, while one may appreciate a Mexican flag being displayed in a cubicle, the display of a Canadian flag does not earn the same appreciation due to its benign banality. Far more common that the more exotic and underrepresented the culture, the more interest we take in their displays of nationalism and pride.

3)  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.

4)  Language has a way of revealing a low-trust culture 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; not that the language is threatening or that there was any non-verbal cues, but that we simply do not make a gesture towards building relationships of trust.

5)  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 negative perceptions and opens our mind to collaborative solutions.

The Cultural Detective™ model emphasizes 3 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 freely across cultures). These competencies are taught in a variety of ways, but I have found that when I can be a part of this discovery of cultural identity through provocative discussions, individuals overcome their anxieties and find that 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 seeks to deliver creates a model worthy of emulation to 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) they can then implement specific strategies with their colleagues and try on new approaches to the same situations finding improved results, greater personal satisfaction and increased intercultural confidence.

(This post is included in the Cultural Detective™ Blog blog as a guest contribution on July 21, 2015)

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