Tips in Facilitating Small Groups in Other Cultures

Friday, April 27, 2012

Trainers who work internationally must often facilitate small groups. While that can pose language difficulties, there can also be real cultural issues when it comes to facilitation itself.  What are some tips in facilitating small groups cross-culturally? 

Tip 1: In Western culture, almost everyone sees the value of small group work. But that is not always so in other cultures. Some participants may feel “cheated” if too much time is spent in small groups. The assumption is sometimes that the facilitator is or should be the font of all knowledge and that the role of speaker is as “expert” rather than as “discussion leader.” Consequently, if you plan to do small group work, EXPLAIN WHY at the outset.


Tip 2: When facilitating small groups, be sure to give the directions but THEN visit each small group to make sure the participants are clear what to do. Sometimes people zone out when it comes to transitioning from hearing the presenter to engaging in the small group activity. It is not just a language issue. The same challenge can confront facilitators even in their own language!

Tip 3: Participation can vary cross-culturally. Not everyone is eager to speak in front of  a group even to answer a simple question. Make it easy to participate. One way is to tell everyone at the beginning of the session that when you ask a question, you will take volunteers first—but if nobody answers, you will play “game show host” and thrust the mike under the mouth of a random person. That will usually encourage participation without needing to do anything more than that.  

Tip 4:  Do not assume that the noise level indicates the engagement level of a group. In the U.S., highly-engaged groups can be very noisy. That is also true in some other cultures. But not in all of them! (Singaporeans are very quiet even when VERY engaged.) So, avoid using noise level as a sign of engagement because it is a faulty measure. A better way to judge it is to give people a challenging time limit on a small group activity. If everybody is done before the time limit, they were not too engaged. But if everyone begs for more time, you know they ARE engaged.

About the Author
William J. Rothwell, PhD, SPHR, is the president of Rothwell & Associates ( and professor in the Workforce Education and Development Program at the University Park campus of Penn State University. As a researcher he has been involved with the last five competency studies conducted by Association for Talent Development (ATD, formerly ASTD). In 2012 he won the association's prestigious Distinguished Contribution Award. He is author of 81 books and 250 articles in the field and had 20 years of experience in government and the private sector before becoming a college professor in 1993.
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