Touching Touchy Untouchables – Dealing with the Topics that Interculturalists Tend to Avoid Annabelle Bee Baumann and George Simons conducted a hybrid interactive session at the recent SIETAR Europa Congress hosted by the University of Malta. This event addressed issues that trainers and coaches often feel they are forced to navigate as they attempt to surmount ever increasing pressure to design trainings which are truncated to fit into shorter time frames, with more diverse clients and pressing social issues. Situations where context is everything.
The workshop opened with a quote from the song “Anthem” by Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in”, implying that troubled times are moments of opportunity as they offer us insights into our broken assumptions of how we thought things should be or work. The objective of our workshop was to identify and launch a conversation into difficult topics, providing a safe space by using gamified features like polls and timed interactions.
To set the theme of the event, we used the ancient Indian parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, illustrating how we are so often grasping at the truth based on our own limited perceptions and perspectives as well as those of others. Each of us comesup with answers about what truth is based on how we grope for the truth and piece it together, depending on one another, negotiating with one another, leaning on one another, and giving room for more than one interpretation of truth. Uncertainty and fear of making mistakes and conflict too often make us hesitant to pay attention to or call attention to “the elephant(s) in the room”.
Our hybrid group consisted of approximately thirty face-to-face participants and 25 online, with 80% of the group identifying themselves as being based in the Industrialized West. This called our attention to the often-unaddressed issue of inclusivity and need for decolonialization as challenges facing intercultural professionals–how to encourage more and more people to have a voice, not just Western educational elites.
We introduced the challenge speaking about 10 plagues of training, the obstacles to effective discourse and connection: blood, cliques and ingroups; flood, too much information, lice and flies, the nuisance of lies and false news attaching themselves to us and distracting us; pestilence, infectious negative attitudes; locusts, the elements eating up time and resources; hail, a pelting rain of old, frozen ideas; boils, the tendency to get irritated;
darkness, groping for anything that seems solid in uncertainty; and the slaying of the first born, when our best ideas are rejected out of hand. These are the challenges we outlined. Then we delved deeper into what the challenges are that plague us in this modern era that are hard to talk about.
George spoke about a major challenge his team had when they contemplated going to South Africa when there was a ban on doing any kind of business in the Apartheid era. The challenge… do we do take the assignment or not? Can we bring something we feel is good for the situation and try to offer it, or do we just avoid the challenge, let it be, and let the sanctions make the rules? Today, we live in a world overflowing with sanctions – how do we navigate them or address them as interculturalists?
We opened the discussion with our fundamental question: when and where, as a trainer or a teacher, do you hesitate to speak?
We defined this as the touchy edge where we need to establish the identity of the participants with whom we find ourselves, to understand how they identify themselves, and to be aware of how their values are at stake in the context we share with them. This demands the critical follow-up question: what can we do to manage these situations? Speaking with someone whose policies or ideology you agree with is generally not a problem. However, when you’re talking to someone whose ideology, ecology, human rights attitudes, etc., don’t align with yours, what to do?
We staged a twenty-minute-breakout session putting the classroom attendees in six groups of five people, along with the breakout groups online. The task was to share what we found to be touchy situations for each of us and discuss what had happened in these moments. We asked each to share the hot untouchables that they encountered and identify the context in which these surfaced.
The first topic reported was stunningly apropos, “How to make vulnerability attractive?”
We agreed that this is a key question. How do we become okay with feeling uncomfortable? When, for example, you sense racist attitudes or behaviours in the room, do you, or how do you call them out? Another person reported dealing with working between Europe and the Muslim Middle East and wondered how to find the line between being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community and remaining respectful toward one’s Arab Muslim colleagues. Often, we come from two very different viewpoints and the challenge is to navigate around those boundaries.
How do we move from training to active awareness leading to implement behavioural change?
And when it comes to touchy subjects, if the mind is always dialed to the Western approach, to what extent are we Eurocentric, colonially minded? One person raised her difficulty of being a white woman of privilege coming from the USA and speaking to a 90% (or more) international group of students. She wondered how to address what she believed to be sexism in a very patriarchal culture without becoming the woman who’s standing at the top and judging everyone else?
Could gamification help?
George has attempted to create a game about toxic masculinity to broach the subject in a way that would allow it to be discussed in a safe atmosphere where players would not be judged. How do we discuss the disposability of men and their loss of purpose, as women become self-sufficient economically and now often outnumber men in academic situations and often outperform men there as well as in the workplace? Where does that leave men who may feel displaced from the treasured but deteriorating roles of provider and protector that may have been toxic to them despite being the source of their identity?
Another touchy topic mentioned was the avoidance of addressing religion and religious divides in intercultural discourse. We need to face the fact that religion is not only a prominent factor in shaping culture, but also affects government policies that result in major international decisions and disruptions cultural. Some raised the question of how to speak about social justice and how can we discuss it in our trainings. How do we make our trainings about real people instead of being locked into academic abstractions?
What about the lack of communication with peoples of the East?
They were hardly represented in our group. What of the current situation, where Russians are so easily generalized as bad people–Gemeinschuld all over again? We feel that we are going backward in many places today with the resurgence of populism and increase in tribalism. Interculturalists need to be able to resist these trends, but how? How do we lighten a heavy topic without making light of the values and divergent abilities of others?
What are some strategies:
• Inflect: Often touchy topics are addressed in general terms with what sounds like an “all or nothing” position. This requires breaking them down by identifying and accenting various aspects that can be discussed.
• Reflect: Here the skills of active listening enable each of us to feel heard, whether we agree or not.
• Deflect: Rather than taking the full brunt of disagreement and needing to counter another’s
position, open the discussion by inviting others present for their opinions.
• Collect: Gather more evidence related to the touchy topic to widen the discussion and provide more resources for solutions.
What are some other helpful directions? We need to reduce as much as we can of the “us vs. them” elements in the discussion and the context. If you are confronted by a person in the group you are working with who is disgruntled and vociferous, complaining, or resisting, stay engaged with them rather than try to ignore them. You can change the dynamic if you leave your podium or frontal position in the group and move toward this person until you have reached a person-to-person conversational distance to continue the discussion. This removes the perception that you are separate from the group, and that it is “you vs. them”. You can also narrow the gaps by asking more questions, engaging personally, sharing your personal stories as well as vulnerabilities related to the touchy topic.
We need to command more time wherever possible.
Often, we are not given time enough to do what our clients expect us to accomplish. The demand for “short and quick” training events places limitations on what we really expect to do. Yet, we can learn to touch a touchy untouchable and expand our ability to work with vulnerability in a shorter amount of time. Perhaps, it is just understanding what the limits are. Stay open to others’ perspectives, even and especially those that make you uncomfortable. Learn to be okay with feeling uncomfortable, because that is where you can ask questions, share, and learn more. You can listen, be vulnerable, and create an environment that is psychologically safe for everyone. George offered a version of Maslow’s pyramid of needs and suggested how to move up the pyramid to higher ground as teachers and trainers if we are aware of the needs that are likely to emerge next.
Bee has three years in the field of intercultural communication, is a stand-up comedienne, and a writer whose focus is humour and gamification. George comes from 37 years in SIETAR and worked in 55 countries where he focused on intercultural communication and cross-cultural negotiation. We are natural allies now, enriched by our differences, and currently working together on a diversiSMILES minigame about how to manage and use humour across cultures. See you at the next congress!
Contact George at: firstname.lastname@example.org / www.diversophy.com