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Thinking Globally, Training Locally: Adapting Materials to Cultural Norms

Several years ago, I was facilitating a Train-the-Trainer in Europe with participants from Spain, Hungary, Ukraine, Germany, and Poland. One of the skills we were trying to provide these new trainers was the ability to handle disruptive participants. In this particular exercise, participants are given the assignment to act out while one of the other participants in the class is giving a presentation. Prior to the skill practice, the participants are given a variety of strategies to handle class disruptions.

The idea is that there isn’t one correct way to handle disruption and during the skill, practice participants can use the strategy they are most comfortable with.

In the first skill practice, we asked one participant to fly paper airplanes across the room until the trainer stopped them. Despite the flying planes, the trainer never said a word and acted as if nothing strange was happening.

Next, we asked two participants to talk to each other while the next participant attempted to facilitate. Despite the disruption, the second trainer continued talking as if the two disruptors didn’t exist.

For the third disruptor, we asked, a participant to continually interrupt the trainer with questions that were off-topic. Again, the same thing, the trainer ignored the disruption and in this case, patiently answered the silly questions.

Although nine more people needed to complete the skills exercise, I stopped it and asked the class why they were ignoring the participants who were acting out. As politely as possible, they explained that it simply would not be acceptable to do any of the strategies that I had suggested they practice. “We are training paying clients,” they explained. “We cannot correct them.”

While this skill practice is extremely useful in the United States Centric classroom, once I realized there was a cultural disconnect with the activity, it would have been foolish for me to continue. It reminded me of a scene from the book Hawaii, by James Michener that epitomizes the refusal to adapt to different cultures. Michener said the missionaries insisted on wearing their heavy wool clothing—appropriate for New England during the winter months, despite the tropical Hawaiian climate. For the inflexible missionaries, winter meant wool, regardless of the actual temperature.

Had I not stopped the activity, and insisted that the training continues according to the script, I would have looked as foolish as those missionaries did to Native Hawaiians. In the process, I would have risked the respect, cooperation, and engagement of the class members.

This cultural clash is not uncommon when trainers take American-based programs to other cultures. Relationships between participants and facilitators vary from culture to culture. Because of that, certain activities that make perfect sense for an American audience will miss their mark in different cultures.

What can you do to not only salvage the training but turn it into a success? “When I realize the material we are trying to teach is creating a cultural clash, I often will have participants break into small groups to discuss the issue. First, I ask them if the concept is valid in their culture. The second part is to develop a way to tweak our concept to make it work in their culture.” explained Donna Steffey, a master trainer for TrainSmart who has facilitated in more than 20 countries.

Steffey says, “By creating an environment where the participants can educate the facilitator on cultural norms, the relationship becomes stronger. “This course correction allows the participants to problem-solve the issue in a way that is appropriate and workable for their culture.

One of the key lessons of working in a global marketplace is that despite our best intentions, our preparation, and our desire to be culturally inclusive, it’s inevitable that we will misstep from time to time. The key is recognizing when it occurs, asking your participants to help you course correct, and using that learning for the next time you work with an international group.