How to facilitate sessions for culturally diverse groups of people

How to facilitate sessions for culturally diverse groups of people

Creative facilitation for collaboration

I have facilitated sessions with people from all around the world, often with people who come together from different countries and cultures for workshops. These sessions include:

  • High performance remote team working
  • Innovation and design thinking sprints
  • Creative and technical solutions to win contracts worth millions
  • Developing competitive edge through advanced customer experience
Photo: Dr. Jo North

People will often fly into an accessible transport hub, we will use the conference facilities at a local airport hotel, and after the session and post-event networking, people fly back to their respective countries.

Facilitation techniques

From my experience the success factors for facilitating diverse, multi-cultural groups are not very different from working with people with similar backgrounds and locations. My main piece of advice is that all of the great practice, tips and techniques that I have shared so far are even more important when you work with a culturally diverse group of delegates.

Most people in business do have the insight, understanding and emotional intelligence to appreciate that their colleagues from different geographies may have a different set of expectations, customs and practices. The role of the facilitator is to support the creation of cohesion and synergy for the group whilst also respecting and making space for individual differences and preferences and ensuring that people who aren’t from the local or majority culture can participate equally and have their perspectives heard.

Aspects to consider in a culturally diverse session include:

  • Cultural differences with regard to authority, challenging and being challenged. In some cultures, saying “I disagree” is seen as being aggressive, in others it is seen as a welcome invitation for constructive debate.
  • Different preferences for structure versus flexibility, and analytical versus intuitive approaches.
  • Perspectives on the importance (or lack of) of punctuality, one person talking at a time, staying on task, checking phones or emails when in session.
  • Different working hours, length of business days and how that might affect peoples’ energy in the workshop.

Different approaches to getting down to business. For some cultures it is essential to socialise and build relationships first, for others it is seen to be more efficient to start tasks and projects as quickly as possible.

The role of the facilitator is to support the creation of cohesion and synergy for the group whilst also respecting and making space for individual differences and preferences. Click To Tweet

The reality is that each one of the items above also apply to teams from the same organisation who work in similar ways from the same location. The differences sometimes become more obvious in more diverse groups, that’s all, and it helps to remember that. Just be open-minded, facilitate with heightened emotional intelligence, and anticipate positive energy and outcomes, because that will help you to generate a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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Other important facilitation considerations

The other key piece of advice is to do your homework well in advance of the event to make sure that you are crystal clear about how any of your delegates prefer to work, and to understand any specific needs that they may have. Examples include:

  • Making sure that you provide the opportunity for people of some faiths to pray at certain times
  • Providing appropriate food and drink refreshments. A group of delegates I worked with came to the UK from Malaysia and strongly disliked our British cold sandwich at lunchtime approach. They felt much more at home when some hot food was provided. Everyone else said they preferred the hot food over the cold when it arrived too! This actually turned out to be a nice way of bringing the whole group together over lunchtime. Also be mindful of particular religious or other dietary food requirements.

Consider any clothing conventions and be respectful of those.

By learning as much as you can in advance, you can adjust your facilitation approach appropriately. You can also encourage people in the session to make the most of what will be a terrific and exciting opportunity to work with people from different parts of the world.

Facilitator tips

And whilst it’s important to understand and be mindful of cultural difference, I also think it’s essential that it doesn’t become a bigger challenge or issue than it really is. Wherever I have worked, I have found that people are people, and that we have more things that connect us than things that separate us. It’s also super-important not to stereotype anyone based on anything – not just culture, but gender, age, appearance and so on – because every single person is unique, as we all know. So, just do your thing, perhaps more mindfully and with some adjustments to ensure that everyone is accommodated as much as possible and feels valued. Build in time for icebreakers and relationship building, as well as task-focused activities. You might find my article Do people behave differently when they are in groups? Insights into group dynamics for facilitators helpful, too. If you’d like some ideas for energisers, download my free Outdoor Energisers for Workshops resource.


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When it comes to differing perceptions with regard to timings, structure and etiquette (e.g. using phones, talking when others are speaking), I strongly recommend that you make expectations clear right at the start of the meeting. My tried and tested method for doing this is to propose a written ‘agreement’ that covers the rules of engagement that are needed for a successful and productive session, and ask the group if they are happy to commit to sticking to it for the day to get the most done in the time available. Everyone I have ever asked so far has said yes, and usually stuck to it! I do ask delegates (as I would normally anyway) to let me know if they are expecting an urgent call, and if so, they will receive a virtual ‘pass’ to check their phone and step outside to make or receive any urgent calls.

Quite often, I experience working with delegates who are super-articulate and fluent in English even though it’s not their native language. Other delegates may find listening to, working in and speaking in English as a non-native language much more challenging. For that reason, I make doubly sure that I offer delegates optional written and visual information to complement my verbal communications when I am working with international groups.

How to facilitate people with different views on challenge

When it comes to facilitating people with differing cultural views on disagreement and challenge, explain that for the purposes of the activity in question that it is an important part of the solution development process, and position the activity as a fun, entertaining (and therefore non-threatening) part of the day. My creative techniques toolkit includes activities such as Provocation, which I’ve described below. Including approaches that are deliberately designed to get people focused on knocking ideas down, so that they can collaborate to build those ideas up again, proves to be a positive, productive and enjoyable exercise.

Also, emphasise that the objective of debate is to focus on the ideas and potential solutions that the group has collectively generated so far, and therefore no challenge will be interpreted as a personal one.

One very simple way of assisting with this of course is to have the group work in smaller subgroups, threes or pairs (depending on your numbers). People in general often feel more comfortable discussing in smaller groups than debating in plenary.

People in general often feel more comfortable discussing in smaller groups than debating in plenary. Click To Tweet

Creative technique – ‘Provocation’ activity

This is a great lateral thinking technique for getting delegates to come up with more extraordinary ideas. It is associated with Edward de Bono who popularised it.

In advance of the workshop, prepare some statements, relevant to the subject the event is focusing on, that are wrong, unreasonable or downright impossible. For example, if you’re into construction or building materials, tourism development or even confectionery manufacturing:

“Invent a new tourist attraction made of chocolate in the middle of the desert.”

De Bono recommends that a good proportion of your provocations should be completely unusable. If you make “doable” statements, the technique won’t stretch your thinking as much.

In the workshop itself, ask delegates to take a statement and imagine the possibilities, and even develop a potential storyline.

Examples of imagined possibilities are:

  • A new form of delicious, unmeltable chocolate could be produced.
  • Incredible ways of keeping chocolate super-cool in the desert could be designed.
  • Sand mixed with chocolate might create a super strong new building material.
  • Challenge tourists to eat the visitor attraction before it melts.

These sorts of ideas aren’t as far out as it might seem at first, especially once they have been dialled back. On a sort-of related theme, Ski Dubai is the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East. The next generation of the Swedish Ice Hotel, ICEHOTEL 365 is a permanent structure that is cooled by solar panels during the summer months. The original Ice Hotel is temporary and rebuilt every winter.

The provocation statement makes sure that delegates will break free of fixed thinking patterns. They will need to suspend their judgement and use your unusual concept as a stepping stone to get to more and better ideas.

Provocation statements take you outside your usual thinking patterns to a fresh, new place. Once you’re at that new place, it’s then up to you to adapt your new thinking to reach where you want to be.

For this to work well, make sure your statement is as impossible as possible! Stay away from ‘safe’ deliverable ideas.

I’ve seen some marketing agencies use this technique to stretch their thinking, before toning it down again and adapting their ideas to become workable solutions.

Groups also really enjoy this technique once they get into the swing of using it.

I’ve had so much fun and learned so much by working with culturally diverse groups. The diversity actually seems to bring out the best in everyone, and it’s wonderful to see people collaborating to achieve a shared goal.

I hope that these tips and techniques help you, and I’d also love to hear about any tools and approaches that you use too to ensure that everyone is equally included and engaged in your innovation process. Please do get in touch at jo@bigbangpartnership.co.uk. When we facilitate, we have an awesome opportunity to help our delegates to have a great day at work, achieve really valuable, innovative outputs and build a sense of community, if only for a day. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I do for a living!


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