Mindfulness and intercultural training

Apr 12, 2018  · by

Mindful woman with heightened cultural awareness

Topics: Coaching, Intercultural profession, Return on investment, Training

Transferring training into the workplace? Mindfulness enables something more ambitious

Intercultural training is not like most other training. Getting a return on investment is hard. This is because we often need to apply our intercultural knowledge and skills in the most stressful and confusing of situations, when many people fall back into instinctive, familiar responses and actions, not what they learned on a course months or years ago.

A standard aim of cultural training is to “transfer new skills and insights into real workplace situations”. This is a worthy goal. The next level of ambition is for cultural training to begin a personal transformation which returns the investment many times over a long period and overcomes the barriers to successful transfer.

Mindfulness can be the multiplier which turns training into a lasting resource. Mindfulness offers trainers a way help employees break out of the special limitations of intercultural skills transfer.

In short, mindfulness helps participants internalise the learnings in training, removing some blocks which stop cultural training from working.

Ideas alone are not enough

Mindfulness: mind, body, breathing
Body and breathing are under-used in intercultural training

Body, mind and breathing, we all use these a lot. We are all thinking, breathing bodies, but trainers have traditionally reached only for the mind in training. Two thirds of the items on this list are under-used by intercultural trainers.

Experiencing other cultures is very often physical. people get tense, they intuitively sense disconnection or resistance. They may get feelings of comfort or discomfort. Thoughts and emotions are all happening within a thinking and sensing/feeling body. International assignments are stressful. In the most extreme cases there may even be a feeling of violation.

Mindfulness addresses the overwhelming experience of cultural difference directly. It tackles stress reduction.

Incorporate into intercultural pedagogy

An intercultural trainer using mindfulness techniques has a duty to review and prepare for those reactions. How deep is this felt? Where does it come from? In a mindful intercultural training, we review how we’ve locked ourselves into habits and we review the values we’ve been taught.

Stepping out of the safe zone

The trainer may take training participants beyond safety of ideas into a space where training does not traditionally go: into emotion, physical reactions and reflexive responses. It’s more visceral and sensitive than other kinds of training. And the trainer, being mindful him/herself, needs to be entirely present with the other participants, with full attention on the emotional content of the training situation.

A starter exercise
Intercultural training group
Mindfulness brings many of the benefits we target in intercultural training

This sounds like a dramatic departure from traditional intellectual forms of intercultural training. But it is possible to start with just small steps. Trainers may sprinkle mindfulness into training, see success and then go further.

One popular exercise as a first step into mindful intercultural training goes like this:

  • with the participants, find the cultural habits and values to which they are most attached
  • breathing exercise
  • run a realistic simulation where those attachments come under pressure
  • repeat the breathing exercise, and discuss the thoughts that come up
Enriching not disrupting the work of interculturalists

Mindfulness is not in conflict with other models in the field of cross-culture. There is a little overlap with ideas of cultural fluency and cultural intelligence, but in general mindfulness is content-neutral. Mindfulness underpins cultural competence. It is not an aspect of cultural competence.

An intercultural trainer may bring in mindfulness techniques, without a wholesale replacement of existing approaches.

Business person checks watch
Interculturalists under time pressure

One of the great pressures experienced by many intercultural trainers is time: the limited contact time available with training participants. A mindfulness intervention in training may be a just a few minutes. Real change can begin in less time than required by the traditional 1-2 day training.

Studies show that there can be positive impact even with very short interventions, though more research is needed on the impact of different formats of training specifically in the intercultural field.

Drip, drip, drip…

In cultural training, there’s often so much content. A typical format is a full training day plus some online activity in the 1-2 weeks before and after. There’s a lot to absorb in a short time. List of Dos and Don’ts is too long for most people to store in their heads or keep in training handouts.

Mindfulness supports an approach which is about long-term engagement, is shorter bursts of learning and shorter episodes of live connection with the trainer.

Risky business

If a training practitioner can achieve more in ever-shorter training sessions, can we as an industry sustain this? Is there a viable business here? These are good questions and the answers are not yet clear.

Virtual meeting with trainer
Virtual meeting with trainer

However, the ease with which trainers can stay connected with participants today suggests a future direction. Mindfulness gets its power when adopted mindfully yet habitually in everyday life.

Trainers and their clients need to explore new ways of collaborating, where the trainer becomes an on-going resource for people and organisations, sustaining participants’ commitment to mindful practices and offering access to those databases of Dos and Don’ts.

Walking the talk as a mindful, culturally-sensitive trainer
Get started You can download the Mindfulness and culture training slides and consider how to bring mindfulness techniques into your training.

There are other questions for mindful intercultural trainers to answer too. Naturally, as intercultural trainers we must walk the talk. We must be respectful of cultures and beware that mindfulness may be perceived as competing with some religious practices.

According to the hype, mindfulness is for everyone. But it would not be a smart move to require mindfulness of absolutely all personnel who need intercultural training.

Intercultural trainers as students of mindfulness

We’ve provided some downloadable slides which can help intercultural trainers integrate mindfulness into their current training approach. But if mindfulness is entirely new to you, the best place to start is by experimenting on yourself.

Intercultural training group

How to get started with mindfulness in your intercultural training

Jun 25, 2018  · by

Leading clients through a mindfulness exercise as part of intercultural training makes you, as trainer, the model for mindful practice. If you are early in your journey with mindfulness, our best tip is that you become deeply familiar with mindfulness in your own life. We offer five steps for getting started.

Practise patience, catch yourself being impatient, learn to notice signs such as gripping the steering wheel tighter, tapping your pen hard on the table or noticing the literal heat rise inside your clothes when you’re in a tough conversation.

Try some breathing exercises, reflect on situations immediately after, and then increasingly do that reflection when you are in the moment too.

A tool for intercultural trainers

So for intercultural trainers, mindfulness builds the business case, integrates smoothly with existing approaches, enables more impact in ever-shortening training sessions, opens new possibilities for on-going involvement with clients, sends training participants away after a memorable training experience empowered with transferable techniques and good prospects for more satisfying intercultural work.

Now breathe, and imagine using mindfulness in your intercultural training.

More on mindfulness and culture

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