illuminating pathways to change

Thinking on your feet when you’re the only one who doesn’t speak the lingo…

You know how it is when you really have to think on your feet? Well, this was one of those moments…

I was prepared (or so I thought). Before I left Australia for Taiwan I was told 17 people had registered for my pre-conference workshop, but to bring 22 booklets “just in case”. Based on previous experience I’d anticipated a mix of nationalities and language groups from across Asia e.g. Taiwan, Japan, Korea, India and maybe a couple from Europe or the Americas. I’d planned the day based on what I knew at the time.

I turned up at the 2016 International Facilitators Conference (IAF) – Asia Region, in beautiful Hualien, Taiwan and discovered:

  • More had registered for my pre-conference workshop while I was travelling and now there would be 28 participants
  • 28 people spoke Mandarin … and then there was me
  • some participants from China didn’t speak English at all

What to do?

Facilitators need to be flexible at the best of times. I’ve had some challenging “think fast on your feet” moments over the years. Facilitators running learning workshops for other facilitators at a facilitation conference also need to model “adapting processes to changing situations and the needs of the group” (IAF Competency D3).

I quickly discovered we had a great group of facilitators and a helluva lot of experience and wisdom in that room. People came from Taiwan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Malaysia. All were keen to explore a systems approach through my Holistic Framework for Facilitation (the link leads to a short promo video for the workshop). The framework was designed with Process Facilitation in mind but it also works well for Training Facilitation.

Although the workshop was advertised as being conducted in English, I knew I had to adapt and adapt quickly if everyone was to get the most from the day’s learning (and what everyone had paid for). This called for some fancy footwork.

My preparations included:

  1. A workshop booklet with diagrams and content for each segment summarised in simple dot-points
  2. Laminated cards with the framework on one side and questions/consideration on the flipside *
  3. Instructions for activities pre-prepared on flipcharts
  4. The Framework for Holistic Facilitation drawn as a huge model across a wall.

These types of things have helped in the past when working with culturally and linguistically diverse groups. In this instance, it meant most of the content was written or presented visually so people could access it without depending on what I was saying.

* Interestingly the card includes the following consideration “StructureWho is in the room? If you change the structure and make-up of the group then you change the pool of knowledge, perspectives, voices, behaviours, influence, types of contribution and ultimately the outcome”. Apt when one considers the structure of the group at hand compared to what I had anticipated.

I’d planned to intersperse short presentations on the framework with activities such as story-telling to explore participants’ facilitation dilemmas and difficulties. Activities would be followed by reflection on assumptions and actions in the context of the model so that participants could gain fresh insights into their experiences and develop new approaches. That is exactly what happened BUT – it mostly took place in Mandarin.

Here’s what happened …

Those who didn’t speak English sat next to people who acted as interpreters during the introductory session, but as soon as we moved to small groups I noticed that most conversations were happening in Chinese.

The first plenary started off haltingly while we waited for comments to be interpreted back and forth for my benefit. This was going to slow things down so two participants offered to help with simultaneous interpretation close by my side. Thanks to Laura Hsu from Taipei and William Wu from Shanghai for stepping into the role. It was effortless and unobtrusive.

Before long the group was doing its own learning. The atmosphere alternated from high energy to quiet and intense when people shared stories in small groups or reflected in pairs. I didn’t understand everything that was said or even reported back to the whole group, but I didn’t need to. I’d hoped that by the end of the day the big model on the wall would be peppered with sticky notes indicating participant’s insights and ah-ha moments. The workshop was never meant to be a presentation from me. It was designed as a collaborative learning experience. I could tell all was going to plan when the wall began to fill up with individual’s insights – interconnected like a web, as any good systems model.

When “thinking on my feet” I decided I had to “let go!” I didn’t need to understand everything that people were saying during plenary discussions. Nor did I need to know what was on all the sticky notes. I certainly was curious but intervening for the sake of my curiosity wouldn’t have served the needs of the group. This “letting go” meant I could sit quietly and observe what was happening within the group. It also meant I could respond individually if someone had a specific question.

What about your “own think on your feet” moments as a facilitator? How did you adapt your plans and processes to meet changing needs or circumstances? Comments welcome. If you liked this blog you may also be interested in Facilitation and All That Jazz about improvisation in facilitation.

After I returned to Australia I received an email from one of the participants regarding delivering facilitator training in China and consequently in February I ran my 4-day Holistic Facilitation workshop under the banner of Intents Consulting in Shanghai. The Director, John Jiang was my interpreter. It was a great 4 days … one thing led to another and we have now formed a partnership. See my next blog When you’re the only one that doesn’t speak the lingo Part 2 for more about this experience.

I’ll be back in China this year to deliver the program again. If you speak Mandarin and are interested in attending the 4-day “Holistic Facilitation” course, September 3 – 6 in Shanghai please contact me or access the flyer here.

Cartoon courtesy of Kaamran Hafeez.

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