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Another great question, born out of experiences in the classroom; by Heather (25 Jan.2012):

I begin teaching my course in facilitation skills (for which many of you recommended resources - thanks!) to professional development students (studying project management), and what has been on my heart a lot lately is that one of my responsibilities is to respect and honour the many cultures in the room. Although I teach in Winnipeg, Canada, there is only one Canadian-born student in a class of 25. Predominantly they are from India, but six other countries are also represented.

I would love to hear advice from people who have done multicultural facilitation and teaching, especially in India. (If you're a facilitator based in India, even better!) I've traveled there and have several friends there, so I have some sense of the culture, but I still have a lot to learn about the many nuances, especially when it comes to different approaches to authority figures. One of the things that comes up, for example, is that some of the international students who are new to Canada are somewhat uncomfortable with my informal teaching style. (I chuckle when I get emails from them referring to me as "most respected Professor".) I've been thinking of this in the context of facilitation, and I wonder what steps I need to take to ensure that they have a comfort level with some of the less hierarchical processes, like AoH methodology.

In one of my classes (I taught this group an Effective Written Communication class already), for example, we were talking about effective apologies, and a few of the international students were quite certain that in their culture, people would lose respect for a leader who admits a mistake and apologizes.

I welcome any insights you might have in this area. I know there's a lot of wisdom in this circle. Any books/resources on this are also welcome.
Also... I have a request... would anyone with experience in multicultural facilitation be interested in being a guest speaker (via Skype) in my class? I'd love to have you! It takes place every Thursday from February 16th to March 29th.

Heather Plett


Hello Heather,  

Thank you so much for your question, and for sharing examples where the core of AoH attitude is challenged by cultural factors, I've thought about this a lot and am still working on the answer(s).
I'm a Cultural Anthropologist currently based in Egypt and I facilitate trainings in cross-cultural competence. I've given only one training "in" India (via skype), but I have training and/or research experience in different countries (including Morocco, Egypt, Bolivia, Peru, Germany, a bit in Mexico) and I know the authority issue you're talking about, as it appears in different multicultural contexts. It was one of the issues I was asked to coach my colleagues in at a private international university in Cairo, where I taught for two years, because communication between teachers and students had gone wrong (extremely wrong) for exactly this reason...

You can find some observations on this issue in Hofstede "Cultures and Organizations", although I really don't like the way he categorizes by nations (!!) and I criticize his methodology, but he compiled a lot of aspects of what he calls "power distance" (and others) that might be interesting to you. The issue is very complex and related to upbringing, beliefs about learning and knowledge ownership, and many other aspects of culture.
Check also the "Handbook of Intercultural Training" and other books and articles by Janet and Milton Bennett. They deal with the issue of teaching intercultural communication and how this whole idea itself comes from a specific cultural background and needs to be adapted to different learner contexts.
There is also Trompenaars "Building Cross-cultural competence". (I don't agree with his methodology, but his examples are very useful!)

One thing I have come to learn while working with people with different power distance cultures, is to give the methods a very clear frame, be very explicit about why and how you want to use them, and explain the benefits of it as you see them from your professional perspective, instead of just let them jump into open space "everything is open, we'll find out together" sort of approach. (i.e. giving the butterfly option can cost you all respect from some of your students, if you don't give them precise reasons why this is a very "serious" thing to do, plus they might feel lost and not respected themselves!). For others, it might just be a revelation and they'll be perfectly fine and at their best with your approach and become unbelievably creative just because they never had the chance before (I've also had lots of these students). So there is no one size fits all even for people from the "same" cultural background. We need to get to know our students better and find out how to create trust and respect. The challenge is to prepare students and teachers to dealing with these differences without fostering stereotypes (!!), which is not easy, but doable, and I'd like to communicate more on this with you and try to find suitable approaches to your context.

I'd bee very happy to be a sort of a guest speaker in your class, depending on the topic you'd like me to talk about, if possible in an interactive way (even if per skype). Let me know more details about what you have in mind. Looking forward to also read some other people's responses to this interesting topic!
All the best to everybody,

Dear Heather:  

Congratulations on getting your course underway! One thing I have been reflecting on (and discussed last week with someone from Sierra Leone during a workshop held in Ethiopia) is something I first really noticed when doing research on peacebuilding in Brcko District in northern Bosnia - the responsibility of individuals to their family.

In North America and possibly much of Europe, a person grows up and leaves home to establish their own home and possibly raise a family of their own. Our emphasis is on independence, and often this involves people growing away from their family of origin. The concept of family and growing up is different in much of the rest of the world. When you grow up, in eastern Europe and much of Africa, you are then seen as being able to contribute to the well-being of your family of origin. Your focus is on supporting them, not on earning resources so you can become independent. (And you must factor your family into your decisions about things like getting married. In the Balkans and much of Africa, young men cannot get married until they can support their family of origin as well as a new family.)

It seems to me that this is one of those differences in cultural perception that we don't often talk about, but which has many effects in terms of individual development - in terms of 'independence', use of earnings, schooling, etc. It probably make for an interesting discussion in your course.

Best regards,

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Hi Heather,

I work for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and am currently based in Indonesia working specifically with the Canadian Red Cross and support the Indonesian Red Cross in their disaster preparedness work. In Asia, the respect for position, elders and authority is very important and they will not feel comfortable unless you simply accept this and allow them to give you this respect. It isn't so much hierarchical as respectful. Also, "face" is an extremely important concept also. A leader needs to be humble and apologize for any mistakes he or she has made but do so in a way that does not lose face. You can say, please excuse me for any mistakes or offenses I may have made without being specific as to what it was. Think "indirect" instead of the Canadian way of being direct and you will likely have an easier time. I hope this helps! Regards, Jackie

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