When you deliver training in Asia it will be difficult to get people to interact with you because they are quiet

….….so goes the cliché. Many times I’ve been given advice by people before I’ve traveled somewhere, and invariably my experience has been different from the advice I’ve received.

My experience is that people anywhere in the world are very engaged in learning, and very willing to engage both with trainers, and with other learners. However, the engagement takes different forms everywhere, and it requires openness and flexibility to let go of assumptions about how learning should happen, in order for learners themselves to engage.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey

What has helped me in trying to understand before I work in a different country, are some key principles that I hope you will find helpful if you are working internationally in learning and development.

These principles are:

  • Respect people for their intelligence, and their culture – make it about them
  • Test and validate observations by talking to people
  • Let go of what you expect to happen, and give learners control

Respect people for their intelligence, and their culture – Make it about them.

I’ve found admitting I don’t know and I don’t understand the people or culture really helps. People in different countries have different

  • ways of being,
  • ways of doing,
  • ways of knowing
  • ways of communicating
  • ways of learning

These ways work for them. Assuming that a different way is in some way inferior to the way we expect people to learn, is a barrier to learning for everyone. I love to learn myself, and learning about other people and cultures is best enabled by admitting “I don’t know.”

For example, one of the things that consistently I experience in Asia is that the level of respect I or other facilitators am afforded by people is phenomenal. For this reason I received advice many times, that people won’t engage, they are very quiet.

Quietness on behalf of learners, in many cases I found was because the learners  knew a lot more than me.  However, to preserve the harmony of the group and to avoiding embarrassing me as the facilitator, the group would be quiet.

I could make assumptions about why the group is quiet, or I could try to understand why they are quiet, which leads to the second principle I’ve found helpful:

Test and validate observations by talking to people

In many cases, I have been wrong in expectations, and had incorrect assumptions about how people behave, many of these expectations and assumptions based on the cultural norms I’ve grown up with for ‘this is how people learn, or this is how people behave.’

For example, in Europe and the United States, the individual person is the focus of much attention, and we focus on special people, with special talents, and the individual is recognised. In many Asian cultures the harmonious group or collective is a focus of attention, where each person has a contribution to make to a group, and the group has a contribution to make to the overall harmony of society. These Confucian values we can read about, and test by observing how people talk and listen, and what happens when different people at different levels of seniority or position interact. We can then talk to people and test to see if we understand properly.

In Asia, group conversations between participants in their own language, rather than through the facilitator, followed by group sharing very often worked beautifully, as it de-personalised learning, and made it more a shared group experience. There is also no danger of embarrassment for individuals, or the facilitators. Talking to people and asking if observations are accurate and also what they want to do, helps a lot during training. The best people to talk to are the learners themselves, outside of this, every conversation while you are in the country is an opportunity to learn too.

Any particular culture or way of learning is not right or wrong, it just is. The key from a learning professional’s point of view is to respect the learners in the room, observe how they relate to each other, to content, to hierarchies, to the trainers etc. and to work to create the optimal learning environment.

Let go of what you expect to happen, and give learners control

The best learning environments are where the learners are in control. When I did a Master’s in Education and Training Management in Dublin City University years ago, I was stopped in my tracks by a question from Dr. Margaret Farren who runs the program. She asked simply, “what do you want to learn?” I was thinking through my education up to that point, and I could not recall any other time when a teacher, trainer, educator ever asked me that before. I found personally, when I could decide what I wanted to learn, the learning experience was amazingly engaging.

My experience as a facilitator of learning is also the same. If you help learners learn what they want to learn, it makes for a much more engaging learning experience.   Certainly, we all have content to deliver, but often we can bring that into the experience the learners want to create. This is particularly important in international training. Sometimes, learners just want to listen to a lecture, sometimes, they want to test and discuss content with people in their own language, sometimes, they want to go out of the room as a group and explore something.

Engaging learners is the best blend of ‘what do you want to learn and how do you want to learn it?” together with the objectives that the training is designed to achieve. Giving up expectations on how people learn best, and putting the learners to work in the way they want to work, is automatically more engaging than forcing a narrow frame on learning.

A fellow learning and development professional, Jonathon Halls has some nice phrases that sum this up. “The more you tell people, the more they forget,” and “learning takes place in the mind of the learner.”

My experience around the globe, from North and South America, to Europe, to the Middle East, to China and South East Asia, has been that learners are fully engaged when we:

  • Respect them and their culture, and make training about them
  • Observe and test to validate our observations (by talking to learners)
  • Give up our expectations of how people learn, and give learners control

Have you any thoughts on the subject, that you would like to share?

[first published on Linkedin]