While we certainly do our best to design a workshop session for the desired outcome, there are often unexpected moments of laughter, revelations, tears, or tension. The best planning cannot account for these valuable moments of learning that happen thanks to our participants and the thoughts and behaviors that our programs trigger. As facilitators, trainers and consultants we have collected plenty of these stories for our own development and expansion of our toolbox of methods, techniques and potential scenarios.
So, instead of keeping them to ourselves, we are inviting you to browse through some of our “stories from the training room”.
It was my first class delivered in Portuguese, over 10 years ago. Participants were introducing themselves by sharing their names, positions in the company, and something personal. One of them said that she was gravida and I interpreted that she was severely ill so I replied, “I’m sorry to hear that“. They all laughed. I felt confused…and embarrassed. Gravida is the Portuguese word for pregnant. I became aware of my error, a linguistic mistake, a false cognate between Portuguese and Spanish. (Grave means “severely ill” in my mother tongue, Spanish.) The circumstances turned out to be a great learning. I tried to turn a loss into a profit at once. I laughed at my own mistake and said, “And now my Portuguese has definitely gotten much stronger.” The participants didn’t take offense at my reply, and everyone saw the funny side of it instead. When doing business within the context of a different culture, at least in this specific culture, having a good sense of humor is vital. Admitting one’s own error quickly and being open to receiving feedback may contribute to a more relaxed atmosphere and can optimize meetings and teaching-learning processes.
– Senior Consultant, Global Mindset program
While working with a female executive being accompanied by her husband on an upcoming assignment in Belgium, I identified some unspoken concerns on her part regarding her partner’s access to a gainful vocation or other activities once in-country, and in fact whether he would indeed stick it out. They clearly loved each other, but he had not been aware of her worries. I was called upon to offer context that allowed space for what was an emotional discussion, but I felt, in the end, went a long way to resolving a possible point of conflict during the assignment. This demonstrates the need for deeper communication between even the most connected and supportive couples during assignment preparations.
– Senior Consultant, Thriving in Belgium program
A few “aha” moments emerged during a cultural competency session for a US-based team in the early stages of a three-year project based in Egypt. One that stood out was related to approaches to work. The team faced obstacles and delays with a third-party company based in Egypt facilitating project deliverables. They reported that the lead manager from that firm was creating extra demands outside of the project scope and providing incorrect information delaying the project. After discovering the difference between a task-based, “get-it-done” approach (common in the US) to a more relationship-based “get-to-know-you” approach (common in Egypt), they realized it was a style difference and trust was not established. Within a few months after the workshop, the team reported they now schedule social meetings during their face-to-face visits and hold internal debrief sessions after the social meetings to stay on task. What was first a judgment about project delays turned into a mindset shift on different ways to approach work. Applying the new intercultural strategies and deeper understanding of their own styles and styles of others (many times influenced by culture), no one had to change who they were, they just altered how they approached the task with a focus on relationship building.
– Senior Consultant, Global Mindset program
At the outset of working with a newly arrived, repeat expat (and fellow Australian), I sensed in him a feeling of resistance as to how the training would help him. During introductions, I asked about his family and he identified that his wife, though born in Australia, possessed Russian heritage. I casually went on to describe possible traits he may have witnessed in her, how these differed from him, as well as suggested where conflict may have resulted. He was clearly struck by the accuracy with which I could describe someone I had not even met, and offered a cultural “proof of concept”. It immediately captured his attention and ensured full engagement for the duration of the program.
– Senior Consultant, Thriving in Country X program
I was facilitating an inclusion and diversity workshop with a group of 20 people in a cross-functional department. Most participants had been at the company for 15-30 years. After we reviewed the Diversity Wheel framework, a woman sitting alongside her peers of executive assistants raised her hand to comment. She reacted to a couple of the dimensions in the diversity wheel and related it to something she had felt for a long time, but had never shared. She said, “Look at us now, we (executive assistants) are sitting at a different table and this is how it usually is. We work so closely with you that we have the same information, yet rarely get invited to the table.” Many people did not realize this was an issue but this one woman, who had the courage to speak up in a safe way about the impact of exclusion, presented new information that illuminated a blind spot in others. Shortly after that, the entire group continued to open, moved around the room to sit with others they didn’t know and made a commitment to alter the way they engage after the training.
– Senior Consultant, Global Inclusion & Diversity program
I facilitated an Unconscious Bias and Inclusion session in a very safety-conscious corporate culture. A participant raised his hand about 25 minutes into my introductory remarks. He said, “I’ve been wanting to tell you that your shoelaces are untied, but I didn’t know how to pronounce your name and didn’t want to be embarrassed, so I did not say anything.” The lesson: There are so many situations that are avoided (greetings, introductions, etc.) as a result of people’s discomfort with names, and in particular, ethnic-sounding names. To this person’s credit, he had the courage to admit his discomfort and ensure my safety.
– Senior Consultant, Unconscious Bias program
As part of the teaming and cultural awareness workshop, I facilitate an activity called “Snakes”. Team members are blindfolded and form a single line, holding each other. They need to move like snakes and pick items that have fallen on the ground. Once the activity is done, I debrief the game with questions and with a slide that has the image of a snake. In one session, as soon as I started facilitating the discussion, there was a shriek of panic in the training room. I noticed that a female participant looked really scared, and she said to me, “Please change the slide. I am scared of snakes. I hate them.” I quickly changed the slide and we took a 5-minute break. While having a chat with her individually, she told me that she has a phobia of snakes, even seeing images of it makes her panic. I had an idea and asked her if she felt comfortable speaking in the session about what had just happened. She agreed. When we reconvened, we transitioned the discussion to what learnings could we gain from the reaction of our colleague. How could we use it in our interactions with each other? We had an amazing discussion on how we are all different; how we all have our unique strengths and fears; how we need to learn to ask, listen, observe, and be empathetic to be effective while working with different cultures.
– Senior Consultant, Teaming Effectiveness program
A Muslim, Indian-American executive was preparing to relocate to Dubai with his family. His wife was a convert to the faith. He saw this as an opportunity for them all to learn Arabic, especially the potential to engage more deeply in their faith. She shared this interest but was hesitant because introducing a new language might hinder other learning. I shared my personal experience as the parent of a bilingual child, offered stories of other expat clients, as well as resources that gave a balanced view of the issue. These are the situations whereas trainers we need to have a ready set of tools to draw on that can address such questions in real-time wherever possible.
– Senior Consultant, Thriving in the UAE