Have We Done Something Wrong?

It occurred to me recently that an occupational hazard in our field, a hazard for trainers and lecturers, especially, is that without meaning to—and certainly without wanting to—we put people on the defensive. And needless to say, people who are on the defensive don’t appreciate being there and are not very likely to thank you for upsetting them.

Let me explain. Very often in our field, we are trying to expose people to worldviews, values, norms, et cetera that are different from their own, sometimes very different. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and if that’s all we were doing, there would not be a problem. But if we’re being honest, the reason we are doing all that stuff in many cases, whether or not we make it explicit, is to encourage—or at the very least, to make it possible—for people to broaden their perspective, open themselves to alternative ways of looking at the world, to become more accepting and tolerant of the Other. 

And that’s where the trouble starts. Exposing people to difference is one thing, whatever they do with the information, including doing nothing, but championing or even just encouraging greater openness to differences is quite another. Let’s face it: a workshop on cultural differences can subtly or even not so subtly imply that the folks in the audience are not presently open and accepting of differences, and that we’re here to fix that. I don’t think most trainers believe that or feel that way, but if we’re not careful we can send that message regardless. Indeed, many people have already gotten that message even before they walk into the classroom. I’ve been told more than once by a client that when they scheduled a cross-cultural workshop and announced it, some of their staff openly wondered what the purpose of such a training was and even what they had done wrong to need such a class. If people feel like that going in, then the trainer has to be especially careful. 

I suppose another way of putting all this is to say that a training that deals with culture and cultural differences is by its very nature dealing in sensitive, personal, even emotional content, and we’d do well to tread very carefully. When HR schedules a training on Excel or Powerpoint, on the other hand, people don’t start wondering what they’ve done wrong. 

The bottom line here is that people who are on the defensive don’t learn—at best; they may even fight back. And note the implication here for the trainer: In many situations, your job is not only to make sure people don’t become defensive during your training, it’s also to defuse the defensiveness already sitting there in the classroom when you walk in.

So that’s the challenge, the occupational baggage we’re stuck with. So what’s the fix? It’s mostly a matter of tone. Step One, right up front, is to make sure that the way your talk or workshop is written up and described to the potential audience doesn’t ruffle feathers. If your write-up says something like: This workshop will open participants’ eyes to the many mistakes we all make when we interact with people from different backgrounds and help you avoid making such mistakes going forward—this may be a little off-putting, even if it’s all true.

On the other hand if you said something like: The purpose of this talk/seminar is to help participants become more aware of cultural differences so that they can be more effective in their work—now we’re getting somewhere. This description would work just fine in most cases, especially those where people are starting to interact more with other cultures/nationalities in their jobs and who already realize they’ve got a learning curve. Even then, note the subtle implication that at the moment you’re not quite as effective in your work as you could be. For people who already know that, your description is not going to make them defensive, but for people who are not that aware, there could be a reaction. In any event, Step One should not be too hard; the people who are hiring you and sponsoring your event will make it clear what kind of description will go down well with the intended audience, and people will arrive eager to learn.

Step Two is the tone you set very early on during the event. All you have to do, whether or not the program description has already done this for you, is to make it clear that the reason you’re here today is to present folks with information they may want to use in the course of their interactions with people from different backgrounds. And you can add, if you think even that statement sounds accusatory, that many of the attendees may already be aware of these things, so this is just a timely reminder. You really don’t need to sound completely anodyne, but you’ll know right away what tone to set. 

It’s not rocket science: as soon as people realize that you respect them, that you’re not talking down to them, they’ll be open to what you have to say. But if they somehow get the impression that they’re a problem you have come to solve, well do you actually know anyone who likes to be thought of as a problem?

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