It was a noble effort, even if I was naive. Last week I returned from a thirty-day trip to Germany, China, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In each country, I led Skilled Facilitator workshops. Some of you reading this participated in these workshops.
For years, my clients have asked, “What do people outside the United States think about The Skilled Facilitator approach? Can it work in Europe and Asia, especially given the emphasis on saving face? How?" I set out on my trip, naively thinking that I could come back with ready answers. I have begun to form some answers; but mostly, I have developed more questions. If I have learned anything on the trip, it's that the issue of using the Skilled Facilitator approach in different cultures is a complex one. Mastering this topic in a one-month trip is about as realistic as expecting to master the approach itself in one month.
In this column, I'll share some of the things that my clients shared with me and that made an impression on me. In future columns, I'll share some of the implications for using the Skilled Facilitator approach in different cultures.
First, people in every country I visited have been using the Skilled Facilitator approach to guide their work. This may not be a surprise to you, but it was to me. There is a dedicated group of people in each country who are using the approach to inform their work, as facilitator, consultants, coaches, and leaders.
People from every country had concerns about using the Skilled Facilitator approach; almost all of these concerns were similar in kind (if not intensity) to the concerns my United States’ clients express. Although participants in every country didn't name “saving face" as a potential barrier to using the approach, participants in every country did use face saving strategies.
In Europe, a participant who works in Eastern European countries impressed on me that when citizens in these nations used to share relevant information, sometimes they faced prison terms or worse. (This was similar to a comment my colleague Anne Davidson heard from our clients in the former Soviet Union). Fortunately, the other European participants in this workshop did not share this experience.
Participants in China, Singapore, and Japan talked openly about the need to save face and at the same time how saving face creates problems. In one of my conversations in Tokyo, a colleague told me that because Japan is such a homogenous nation, managers expected that their direct reports are able to correctly make inferences without testing them out. When I asked if this worked, she told me that it created problems. Making a gross generalization, among my workshops in Shanghai, Tokyo, and Singapore, my impression is that the issue of saving face was less an issue in Singapore. I don't know whether this was a function of the particular people in the workshop, my impression that Singaporeans seem to think of themselves as more Western than the others, or something else. Those of you with experience in Singapore and China and Japan: What are your thoughts?
In Tokyo, I conducted my workshop in English and it was translated - or more accurately, interpreted - into Japanese. I learned that in Japanese there is no word for “you" that is not offensive. If I'm going to test out an inference I'm making about you (and your surname is Teramura) , it would roughly be translated as, “Mr. Schwarz is inferring that Ms. Teramura thinks that Mr. Schwarz will be late delivering the report. Is Mr. Schwarz thinking correctly?" I know the difference between the languages reflects deeper cultural differences; I'm just not sure yet what this example reflects. What do you think?
I also learned that, in Japan, if I'm testing an inference about you, it's “helpful" to frame it in a way that suggests that I was not so clever to think about this, but that you were the one to think of what I'm saying. This is one of the many ways that people show humility and respect to others. I still don't understand how you do this if you are the one testing the inference; but then I realize that my thinking is limited to both the English language and the frames associated with it. In Japanese, it may be relatively simple. Japanese colleagues: please help me understand how you accomplish this.
One of my biggest surprises came in Australia (and was reinforced in New Zealand), when participants told me that Australians are reluctant to give positive feedback. They called it “tall poppy syndrome": those who receive feedback stand up tall only to get cut down like the tall poppies growing in the field. When I asked where this notion originated, several participants told me that most Australians today were descended from convicts (the British sent their prisoners there), and people did not like the idea of others acting above their station. I'm not certain whether the motivation to withhold positive feedback is to protect people from being subsequently being “cut down" or because they do not want people to feel better than others. Australian colleagues: please help clarify this.
In almost every workshop, I asked participants if they could use some elements of the approach in their work, and if they could adapt it effectively to use within their culture. Almost all participants thought they could even though the approach was countercultural. What I took from this is that people believe it was possible to honor the core values and principles of the approach even as they adapt it to their particular cultural context. For example, in Tokyo, one participant told me that he believed it was possible to test inferences directly with a superior as long as he could convey the respect he had for the other person and could also convey his pure intent for testing the inference. To me, this seems like a combination of compassion and transparency. Still, I don't want to mislead you; the issue of saving face and protecting others does have a cultural layer in the Asian countries I visited that is not present to the same degree in the United States.
I had many more experiences, which I'll continue to share in future columns. I just wanted to give you some initial impressions. What are your reactions or own experiences about this? Please join our conversation at the Mutual Learning Action Group on using the Skilled Facilitator approach in Asian cultures.
© 2005 Roger Schwarz
Roger Schwarz, Ph. D. , is author of the international bestseller “The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers and Coaches" and co-author of the recent “Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook: Tips, Tools, and Tested Methods for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches, " both available on Amazon.com and via other quality booksellers.
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