As trainers and facilitators, we need not necessarily be confined to working in our native languages. We have probably all had experiences working with translators (who translate the written word) for materials and interpreters (who translate the spoken word) in meetings using both simultaneous and sequential interpretation. But normally these opportunities are confined to more formal presentations and settings, where people are sitting down with headsets bolted to tables or connected to a little fiddly box, and often to shorter timeframes.

What if you wanted to play a game, run a quiz, or get people on their feet for an interactive exercise, in Russian, Arabic or Japanese? (these are languages that at least I do not even notionally speak)

With our Japanese partner, Change Agent Inc., and a fantastic, local bilingual Co-Facilitator, I had the great pleasure recently to lead three days of Bright Green Learning Academy workshops in Tokyo with an impressive group of 30 Japanese Facilitators and Trainers. Our training courses are highly interactive and experiential, and it was a training about facilitation and working across cultures.  It was fascinating to plan how to run the workshops very effectively in a language that the lead trainer (me) didn’t speak at all. It worked remarkably well due to a number of actions taken in advance and during the workshops. Bear in mind that to do this well, it takes a lot of extra work, but if your goal is real learning exchange, then it’s worth it.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

To make this work, preparation is absolutely key. You cannot simply show up, speak your language, and let the interpreters do all the work, using your English slides, flipcharts, and materials. Everything needs to be translated in advance, including:

  1. Participant Materials – This is obvious – everything the participants get needs to be translated into their language.
  2. Facilitation Materials – If your co-facilitator speaks your language, you might not need to translate all the facilitation materials. But you will want to go through your Facilitation Agenda in great detail with your co-Facilitator to make sure he/she completely understands the content and process, as they will then be able to answer questions without asking you.
  3. Job Aids – All the handouts, group work sheets, quizzes, etc. will all need to be translated. It is helpful if you number your English versions, and then have the same numbers and layout (as much as possible) for the translated versions, so that you can hand them out while giving instructions, and are certain that they are the same documents.
  4. Flipcharts: Instructional and Templates – In advance (like months in advance), I sent through photographs of all the flipcharts, both those that had group work instructions, and those that small groups use to fill in to guide their group work and record their answers. See below for an example. I thankfully had photos of all of our flipcharts from other English delivery of the courses, so could send those along for translation and creation in Japan.  When I got to Japan all the flipcharts had been made beautifully, and were recognizable as they were exactly the same as the English versions in look. When I had to refer to them, such as the schedule, either we put a few words of English on the Japanese version (as below), or I put an English version of the flipchart below the Japanese to orient myself. When I introduced it, though, I used the Japanese and just kept an eye on the English to make sure I was in the right spot!

Note that it takes longer than you think to translate all these materials well, and format them nicely (and in some cases print them). All these materials need to be sent weeks and months in advance if possible. It is also important to have a professional translators, which Change Agent had, so that the translations were done particularly well, something always appreciated by participants.

Delivery with Interpretation

With all your materials translated, and with a mirror English set in your hands, you are ready to start working with the interpreters. On the day prior to the workshop, it is useful to set up a meeting with the interpretation team so that they have a chance to ask you questions.  The excellent Japanese interpreters I worked with had been provided with both the English and Japanese translation of the materials and had carefully gone through it highlighting concepts, acronyms, phrases that they needed some further information about. This meeting took us about an hour, and also included their tips for me on how to work successfully with them.

In our case, as we were a relatively small group, in a small room, I was the only person with a headset. When I spoke, the interpreters would consecutively translate into Japanese. So I needed to speak slowly and chunk up my inputs so that they could follow. When a Japanese participant spoke, or my co-facilitator, the interpreters would simultaneously translate into my ear. So for the participants, when they were interacting with each other and with me this was seamless, and almost immediately I could understand what they were saying. In order to do this, the interpreters would move around the room to be close to the speaker and use a small whisper mic into which they would simultaneously interpret into English what was being said. They used a clipboard to cover their mouths when they spoke into their small hand held microphone (about the size of an iPhone) and could do it so quietly that no one noticed or heard them speaking, except me through my ear piece! This meant that when I spoke, it doubled the time needed, but when participants were speaking, there was no additional time needed in the agenda. That was an incentive for me to keep my inputs concise, and pacing felt more natural.

With a highly interactive agenda, including lots of movement and format changes (we were delivering facilitation training so walking the talk) this worked well, as participants did not need to speak into microphones, nor wear headsets. I also did not need a microphone, as long as the interpreters could hear me clearly. They did use a microphone themselves when they were consecutively translating my words, so that they could be heard easily by all the participants in the room.

A couple of tips from the notes that I made during our workshop:

  • Wear something with pockets as you still need to put the little control box for the headset somewhere (that lets you turn up the volume, and turn it on and off to save battery – check the battery!)
  • Meet up with interpreters in advance, not only to allow them to ask questions, but also so they can get used to your voice and speech patterns.
  • Keep eye contact with the interpreters during your session. They will give you signals when you need to slow down or explain things further, or if they need a little more time to translate what you said.
  • Check in with them regarding their hours, break times, and things they may or may not do. (Not in this case, but once I had interpreters tell me a little late that they would not translate videos, thus making our small group video report back exercise rather challenging.)
  • Also see if there is anything that drives them crazy – when I work  in French and English, two languages that I speak, I have had interpreters ask that I only speak one language and not mix them mid-sentence, which can be tempting to do. In some cases, there are two interpreters, one who translates into one language and one who translates into another. So when they see me take the microphone or stand up, that would be a visual signal and they would know what language I would be using and the related interpreter would be ready. This doesn’t work if you keep switching languages! This is not always the case, but a conversation with your interpreters in advance will uncover any of these things.

All in all, it is amazing to be able to work effectively in many different languages, even if you don’t speak them. Taking particular care of the preparation and delivery with translation and interpreters can help you make sure that you achieve your goals, your participants achieve their goals, and that your words and materials are not irretrievably lost in translation!

Before I started a workshop recently, I checked both of the Fire Exit doors to make sure they were not locked (believe me, it happens). I also roamed around outside the workshop room to find the fire extinguisher, which I knew was there somewhere (under a table – in plain sight if you are 1 meter tall or less). I also checked with the building maintenance team to see where the rally points were in case of evacuation.

These are things I do regularly now when I work in a new venue, and check again in familiar ones. Then I’ll start my facilitation work with a group by reminding them of these safety features, often before we get to the objectives of our day. Sometimes I format this information as quiz questions, to keep it light yet still draw their attention to it – it’s amazing how many people don’t remember these features in their own buildings. (I’ll admit that I didn’t either!)

This practice is drawn directly from my work with companies. In the past few years I’ve worked more and more with large private sector groups, many representing heavy industry, in and around their own buildings. Many businesses will start their meetings with a reminder of this information. In some cases they might do something more substantial called “Safety Shares”, or “Health and Safety Shares.” I even worked in one company HQ that asked visitors to watch a video about building safety in the reception area before they were able to enter the work space for our meeting (where they then still got the Health and Safety Share).

The Health and Safety Shares that I saw were interesting in that they provided opportunities to show statistics about some aspect of safety in the company or in the country/region where it is located. For example, in one workshop a company participant lead the Health and Safety Share with statistics on how many people have accidents from falling down staircases (one UK report stated that 28,602 people were hospitalised for falling down stairs in 2007-2008). This statistic supported the company’s stringent rule (signs everywhere) for holding handrails on the staircases in all the buildings and installations – an earnest rule that sometimes made visitors smile.

In that particular workshop, which was cross-sectoral and focused on sustainability, we brought in the “E” of “HS&E” which is now what many companies have renamed their Health and Safety departments (Health, Safety & Environment). After the staircase information another participant added some statistics about how many plastic bottles are being used, to sensitise people people about waste (15 million plastics bottles are used each day in the UK!) This was presented by one of the NGO participants as the “Environment” part of the “HS&E Share” and framed as a way to help society “hold the earth’s handrail.” It was both clever and profound as a way to interpret HS&E in today’s corporate social responsibility environment.

These Shares might also be complemented by inputs from the participants on things that they see on their way to work – safety infractions or good practice – as a way to bring the messages into their daily life, rather than just norms that are followed at work. All in all, this kind of HS&E share took about 10 minutes before the workshop (we even started a little early to take this into account), and was an interesting and thoughtful way to bring both the practical personal safety aspect into the room (including how to get out of it, fast!), as well as to position the workshop discussion in a much wider social context.

If you look around you right now, do you know where the emergency exit is? A fire extinguisher? Your local recycling station?

A major cross-cultural collision occurred at the end of a recent multi-stakeholder dialogue I was facilitating.

The offending word: Report.

In the final feel-good stretches of a dynamic multi-sectoral, heretofore generative dialogue, progress screamed to a halt when this six letter word was uttered. The precipitating question, expected to be purely rhetorical – Can we issue a “report” from this meeting?

The room was immediately divided between loud answers of absolutely YES, and absolutely NO. Faces contorted, side conversations bubbled up around the room (ok, maybe I am being a little melodramatic, but not too much). Confounded, I took a quick poll. We found that the private sector representatives weighed in heavily on the NO side. But what about transparency, the NGOs said?! Transparency is fine, came the business answer, the problem is we didn’t DO anything to report on. (Chilly silence, after two long 10-hour days.) But, we spoke for 2 days on lifecycle improvements, made some agreements and got some great ideas, claimed the NGOs. But we set no targets, have no deliverables or budget figures, countered the business partners, let’s work together now and issue the Report in a year or two. A year or two!! The NGOs were mystified…

Ahhh, the penny dropped. Report, I thought, that’s the problem. In a company, a Report (with a capital “R”) means End of Year Report, Annual Report, Shareholders Report. They involve hard figures, money, progress, dates and demonstration of concrete targets met. For us, NGOs, however, we write activity or process reports (with a small “r”) all the time, for communication purposes among our wide and varied constituencies, to keep people abreast of issues and activities often while they are happening, as a means to engage our staff and partners in ongoing consultation. Very different notions of that word “report”.

OK, let’s try this again. I asked the group, “Can we send out a meeting summary after our workshop? “ (No R word this time). Unanimously approved, collision tidied up, traffic flow back to normal.

(Note for my Facilitator record: Sometimes I expect and prepare for cross-cultural differences when I am working with groups that include two or more national (or sub-national) cultures; I might not expect the differences that can occur between institutional cultures. These can be as strongly adhered to, and incredibly different, as working with international groups, and present surprises for a facilitator such as the one described above.)

“…Find out what it means to me,” began Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot in a speech (Boston, November 2008) which re-resonates with me as I reflect on it, thinking about core values. What are our core-values? Is respect amongst them? And what does respect mean to each of us? Do we confuse it with civility – with habit and ritual decorum? Do we confuse it with coded labels and other masks of political correctness? Do we think we should give it because of deference to status and hierarchy or out of a desire to avoid punishment, shame, or embarrassment? Respect. What is at its centre and what is its role in our work and lives?

I am not going answer all my questions. I want simply to capture and share some of Sara’s ‘Six dimensions of Respect’:

* Offering others the knowledge, skills and resources needed (Empowerment)
* Nourishing feelings of worthiness, wholeness and well-being (Healing)
* Feeling good about ourselves resulting from growing self-confidence that doesn’t seek external validation (Self-Respect)
* Encouraging authentic communication: listening carefully and responding authentically (Dialogue)
* Wanting to know who people are, their stories, dreams, thoughts and feelings (Curiosity)
* Offering full, undiluted attention; being fully present (Attention)

If respect is indeed one of our core-values, as individuals, teams or organizations, what more can we do in each of these dimensions? Sara provides some lessons of her own (see Respect: An Exploration), but rather than give those here I think this would be an interesting conversation to have amongst ourselves first. Any takers?

We opened our network meeting yesterday with a workshop on new media, Web 2.0 and social networking tools, and an exploration of applications for learning and sustainability processes. This network is the Balaton Group; a group of systems dynamicists, systems thinkers, and sustainability advocates founded by Dennis and Donella Meadows, who have been meeting by the shores of Lake Balaton to discuss global challenges and change for the past 26 years.

Yesterday during our workshop reflection, we queried our ability to “hear” voices not in the room. How much does our work and avenues of inquiry simply reinforce the messages that we want to hear, rather than minority (or in some cases majority) messages that are completely outside our experience? Network members are well-travelled, culturally sensitive, and primarily reached through electronic means, and now exploring the utility of blogs and podcasting; how much are we able to take into consideration those with whom we do not connect? One of our Members from Indonesia told a story about working with local communities in which they had provided computers for communication purposes. They had recently sent an email inviting people from those communitiesto attend a workshop, and no one responded.

In his recent book, “Stumbling on Happiness“, Daniel Gilbert talks about the view from in here. He puts together a compelling story about how hard, even impossible, it is to remember accurately a previous condition. A more recent experience will always color our evaluation of a past experience. So if those around us are sharing an experience with us, how easy it is for any of us to represent or invoke accurately a completely different context (do we really remember what it was like before we had the internet)?

When such a large percentage of our work is devoted to behaviour change of people that have a potentially very different motivations and contexts to us, sustainability advocates, how close are we getting to really understanding and speaking to the real thing?

Blogging seems to be slowly coming into our daily conversations at work as people start to experiment, and open up to the power of this tool. In our discussions we have seen some very different reactions to the notion of blogs by people at different levels of our international institution. In some of our conversations we have been wondering about the links between culture and blogging.

Do certain cultures take to the practice more naturally than others? (This includes national cultures and organisational/team cultures.)

Within the field of intercultural communication, there are some sets of cultural assumptions that seem to, broadly speaking, be embraced by different cultural groups. One of these is called “Power Distance”. If you think of this as a continuum, from Low Power Distance to High Power Distance (with most cultures falling somewhere in between), here are some of the features at the extremes:

Low Power Distance – This features a democratic management style, power is not jeaously guarded, subordinates take initiative and are not overly deferential to managers. In cultures with low power distance, the CEO or boss might go to the cafeteria and have lunch with the staff uninvited; young professionals could comfortably contest ideas in meetings run by senior staff members; and hierarchies would be flatter.

High Power Distance – This is a more authoritarian culture, power is more centralised, there is more deference to authority and managers tend to hold on to power. In cultures with high power distance, CEOs would have lunch with Senior Managers in a separate room with reservations (and have a better lunch than the staff); plenary discussions would not feature much open dissent of ideas, certainly not by younger staff; and hierarchies would have many levels between general staff and the top management.

So how might this relate to blogging? Well, blogging is definitely a democratising tool, it lets people at any rank in an organization make their viewpoints known (agree or disagree); it allows anyone to start a discussion, a movement or an activity; it allows many voices in an organization rather than one top one; it distributes the right and ability to speak, share and discuss across an organization or a community. Would blogging be considered threatening in a culture with high power distance, or at least might there be strong cultural norms that create a disincentive to blogging? When we send out our draft blogging policy for internal discussion, what might be some of the responses based on cultural interpretations of this new medium? I would be curious to see what others think about the cultural aspects of blogging practice.

I have long loved the traditional South African choral song -‘isicathamiya’ – of Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has spread the message of peace, love and harmony for 47 years, and teaching people about South Africa and the culture of the Zulu people. So great has been their success and popularity that they have performed at many musical award shows, the Olympics, South African Presidential inaugurations and Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies.

A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing them live for the first time. One thing I think anyone who has seen them live would agree is that the performance of this group stirs something in you. And not only the music, but the presence of these artists and the way they dance. (Their movements are derived from the tradition of the mine workers of South Africa and the ‘tip toe’ steps they used so as not to disturb the camp security guards during their weekly singing competitions.) Beyond the beautiful harmonies, this is powerful, moving stuff.

Reflecting on this and a call from organizers of the World Conservation Congress (Barcelona, Spain, October 2008) for event proposals, I’m wondering how we can harness the role of music in such events and more generally as we work? How can we use music to ‘stir something’ in participants and help move us to better work together in co-creating sustainable solutions to the challenges we face? Put on the music of your choice and share your thoughts (including your musical recommendations)…