Rising to the Challenge of the Challenging Delegate Cathy Wellings

Part 4 in the series How to Be an Excellent Intercultural Trainer by Intercultural Trainer Cathy Wellings

This month, Cathy looks at the various breeds of difficult delegate and asks, how can we best manage them during our intercultural training programmes?

Let’s be honest, we have all met those delegates who don’t seem to want to be in the room with us, or who try to dominate every discussion, interrupting their colleagues with their own personal stories or those who say absolutely nothing at all. We can meet these delegates on pretty much any training programme but here we are going to look at some of the challenging behaviours peculiar to intercultural training.

‘Been there, done that, know it all, impress me if you can’

You will meet delegates who have many years of international experience, perhaps they have more experience than you or they have studied cross-cultural management as part of an MBA programme, or perhaps they even grew up in the country you are training on. Most will be humble, keen to extend their knowledge even further and develop new skills and we shouldn’t feel daunted by this experience in itself. However, occasionally these experienced delegates may be waiting for the opportunity to catch you out, disagree with what you say or simply demonstrate their superior knowledge. A key point here is to know and to acknowledge this experience from the outset and to ask for permission to draw on it throughout the day. Make sure you do an individual needs analysis before your training so that you already know what experience you will have in the room and at the start of the training ask each delegate to share what they hope to get from being there so that even the most experienced are pushed to think about gaps they have or new perspectives that might help them. Capitalise on their experience but make sure you also add value through your own expertise – you might also gently challenge some of their assumptions or ask them to think about different approaches to the situations they recount.

‘It depends’

Undoubtedly you will stress the importance of not stereotyping or making sweeping generalisations about cultural groups but you may encounter the delegate who is disinclined to see any kind of cultural norm and can only focus on individuality and exceptions. When asked ‘How might this play out, would this be acceptable, what might be a typical response to this situation in your culture?‘ the response will always be the same: ‘It depends.’ This can be a tricky one to manage as the last thing we want to do is to encourage simplification or over-generalisation but of course when we are talking about culture, particularly on short corporate programmes we do need to make generalisations. Culture is something shared after all. It can help to probe a bit deeper with your questions, to turn them around and perhaps ask what response would be likely when people are stressed or under pressure.

‘When in Rome ok, but this isn’t Rome’

If you are training delegates who work with an international client base or are part of a multicultural workforce but are sat very firmly in their own country you may occasionally hear: ‘Of course I would adapt if I went to visit them in their country but they are here in mine so why should I change the way I normally do things?’ Or perhaps they work for the head office of an organisation that has made an overseas acquisition and feel that; ‘they work for us now and so should adapt to the way we do things.’ It can be helpful to respond to this kind of statement to by asking about desired outcomes. Of course, it’s absolutely fine not to adapt and to do things the way you usually do but what to do you want to get from this particular encounter and how might a slight adaptation in your behaviour help move you both towards a more successful outcome?

‘I’m authentic, take me as you find me’

Sooner or later you will come across the delegate who tells you that it’s much more important to be authentic, to be true to themselves than to try and adjust their behaviour or adapt to the different styles of colleagues or customers from different backgrounds. ‘I prefer to communicate directly, I like to tell it like it is, that’s just me, it’s the way I’ve always been and everyone knows that’s how I am.’   As with the previous example it can be helpful to ask this delegate about desired outcomes and personal impact. Introducing Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity might help them to see the benefits of taking different perspectives.

So be ready for these delegates because at some point you will no doubt encounter them. Allow them space and give them options but if things start to become heated have a private word with them during the coffee break to try and limit their impact on other delegates. Above all else, never take it personally, don’t become defensive and don’t enter into arguments with the difficult delegate.Profile_professional

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