Part One: Role of the trainer within the company where they teach
Claire - Do you think that the English training we provide has a noticeable effect on the approach our learners take to their work—in light of the fact that we tend to encourage listening, critical thinking, problem-solving and the adoption of new methodologies and strategies which they may otherwise not encounter? Is this something that trainers should be embracing and encouraging?
Charles - We should be encouraging it, but I think our impact is limited. You are right that our courses offer a profound change from their everyday life. In my opinion, this difference is so great that the learners assume different personalities on the way to class and back. Sometimes when visiting my students at their desks I see them struggling to balance these two roles.
However, their peers have a tremendous impact on their daily work. So while the various critical thinking activities we introduced may not make it back to their desks, the advice, opinions, and approaches they heard from their colleagues will. This is truly where the trainer shines as an agent of change. We bring together colleagues, lock them in a room and have them discuss controversial topics, solve problems, and produce projects. This is exactly what change management consultants and team building consultants do. So, we are not changing the organization, it is changing itself.
Claire - Do you ever get the feeling that your participants want to draw out the differences between you and themselves and want to protect national stereotypes from your country onto you, even where there´s no basis for them? How should trainers react to that kind of interaction?
Charles - I am in a unique situation. First, as an American I encounter all kinds of preconceptions and false familiarity. But I was also in the military and served three years in Iraq. I have to be careful about when and how much I reveal. The students are certainly curious about me and my past. The key to this situation is remaining objective, both about the students’ culture and the trainer’s own.
I have been confronted by a couple of participants in the past on US politics and once it made for a very interesting lesson. I stayed neutral and tried to explain American liberalism and conservatism. I explained that the short news clips here do not capture the complexity of American politics, and so on. But finally I stopped it and turned it into a training opportunity. I stated to the class that we had a conflict, and challenged them in groups to think of sentences to diffuse the situation. After some ideas and refinement, we had an activity where the students started conflicts (about stealing a conference room, not washing their coffee cup, etc.) with each other and then diffused them. By the end we were all rolling with laughter.
Claire - The boss of a group of German participants I taught in-company once asked me if I could try to make them “less German”—do you see the role of the trainer, therefore, as someone who is there to open the participants up to the world beyond their local community and see the world from a more international perspective?
Charles - I think what I would have said to him is, “Sure, how are you going to help me?” I believe we have the capacity to really help organizations adopt and accept globalization, but without the assistance of management, we are in danger of causing conflict.
For example, I was running some presentation courses in preparation for an international product launch. International sales teams were coming to Germany for an introduction, positioning, target customers, etc. When we started reviewing the slides it was clear from the beginning that it was not going to be effective. The communication style was distinctly German (technological advances first, benefits last), the slides had been translated to C1 English, there was complete information overload... a whole range of issues. We started discussing how our international presentations should be different than those for the German market. We made a list of ideas which would have helped them send their message. But management stuck to the traditional way and the international sales teams left bored and confused.
So, while we can certainly help the organization see itself differently, it is up to management to encourage and embrace the change.
Claire - Would you say that many trainers tend to feel like they are being treated as outsiders in the companies where they work and that there may even be some resistance to the change they potentially represent?
Charles - Yes and no, I would say it depends on how much contact the trainer has with the company and how much authentic material he/she works with. I have had the chance to build some lasting relationships with companies and really have an impact. Many learners will naturally think, “That all sounds great, but you don’t know what it’s like here.” Breaking this down takes a lot of listening, research, and engagement. But over time, the trainer must act like they belong. Walk into the kitchen, make a cup of coffee, ask Holger about the solar project in Spain, tell the boss you like his tie, be a colleague. No one will tell you no.
On the other hand, a certain level of distance is beneficial. We are able to moderate the discussions in class only because we don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. We can ask the tough probing questions without expressing an opinion.
(The second part of the interview, in which Charles shares his ideas on learner autonomy, will be posted here in 2 weeks.)