What Engagement Looks Like in Cross-Cultural Training

By Sean Dubberke

We always want to know how engaged our participants are, particularly in cross-cultural training programs. However, it’s unnerving if you’re presenting to a group of people who behave in ways that you struggle to interpret. Of course, always research or inquire about the communication styles of the cultures you’re training, but you can use this guide to quickly think through what’s happening: 

  • Are participants observing quietly yet attentively? Are they looking at the presentation and at you? If not, you may have a problem with credibility, or the audience may be lost. Assigning pre-work can often help with more complex topics. 
  • Are they taking notes or pictures of your slides? Taking pictures of your slides is faster than taking notes, and both provide participants a way to recall your teaching. 
  • Are they often chatting with others around them? This may not be a bad sign, especially among nonnative speakers of your language. Participants may simply be verifying their understanding with their peers. 
  • Are they frequently distracted by their phones, or do they have a laptop open? If so, you may need to establish ground rules for how and when people can take a break from the training to access their phones and email. 
  • Are they interrupting to ask questions? This is a healthy sign of engagement, but a lack of questions may also indicate that the audience is paying close attention, and that they consider it rude to interrupt the facilitator during training. With such an audience, you may need to leave time at the very end for questions and answers. 

Designing Exercises

Adults learn by sharing, observing, talking, and doing just as much, if not more, than they do by listening to you as a facilitator. In fact, most adult learning research shows that learners report significant gains when they can socialize with peers or the teacher about their new insights. It’s critical to consider the structure you put together to practice and apply learning. 

Turn on your global mindset to determine the best way to provide social interaction in diverse ways, which may include creating one-on-one simulations, coaching scenarios, small team collaborations, or large group brainstorming discussions.  

One area to focus on is attitudes toward individualistic and group-oriented exercises. At the simplest level, you can try to align the following with what you know about the culture(s) of the audience. In any case, use a mix of both to maximize engagement across all participants: 

  • Group-oriented cultures tend to be more comfortable learning in team activities where collaboration, harmony, and cooperation among people are primary goals. Competition could also work, but make it at the team level. Instead of personal action plans, you might ask participants to make a collective or team action plan.
  • Individualistic cultures tend to enjoy competition on the individual level, focusing on a benchmark against others and seeing their individual progress. Role plays are very effective, along with debate and negotiation simulations. It’s also helpful to reserve time for personal reflection, where participants can work toward any relevant self-development goals that management may measure against after training.  

One of the best ways to start training and presenting across cultures is to find some way to activate curiosity for your audience, who they are, where they’re from, and how they prefer to learn. The more time you spend getting to know your audience, the easier it’ll be to navigate the often complex and ambiguous environment that is the global training room. 

If you consciously commit to integrate awareness of your participants’ learning styles, you can more successfully accomplish your objectives as a trainer or presenter in a global environment.