Four Easy Activities for Developing Values Awareness & Intercultural Competence

Jan 29, 2019

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about values. Earlier this month, my spouse left a high-paying job with no idea what his next step will be. In fact, the same day he left his company, he also left the country for the rest of the month.

The reason he left is because he’d realized he was no longer living in alignment with his core values, primarily family and freedom.

My spouse was born and raised in Spain, which largely shaped his attitudes and values surrounding work, money, and family—attitudes and values that don’t always square with corporate America, especially a high-stress job that requires him to be physically present the vast majority of the time. He has come to realize that while he is happy to work hard, he needs a job that gives him independence and flexibility to be more present for his family.

This misalignment has become increasingly obvious to him as our kids get older and the years away from family in Spain—including aging parents—add up. It came to a head when my mother-in-law passed away a little over a year ago. Although my spouse went back to Spain both when his mother had open heart surgery and then again after she passed away, and also paid for live-in care, he realized that he wasn’t able to be present and care for his parents the way he would like.

I certainly empathize. I began True North Intercultural three years ago for a similar reason. I knew it was the best way for me to both pursue my passion for promoting and supporting transformational intercultural learning in higher education and to be present for our kids in the way I wanted to.

What Does This Have To Do With Intercultural Learning?

Why do I bring this up in a blog about intercultural learning and teaching?

Because intercultural competence is all about values—our own and others’. Intercultural conflicts are really, at the core, conflicts in values.

Culture is like an iceberg. There are many aspects of culture that are easily noticeable—like the part of an iceberg visible above the water. These include things like language, gestures, dress, music, and institutions.

There are also many aspects of culture that are less noticeable, like the vast base of the iceberg concealed below the water. These include values, beliefs, and assumptions, which often influence what’s above the waterline, yet remain largely out of our consciousness. These deeply impact how we see and experience the world—such as what we consider normal or abnormal, good or bad, right or wrong.

Developing intercultural competence begins with understanding our own values and where they come from, recognizing how they impact our actions, and figuring out how to interact effectively and appropriately with people who may hold very different values.

The ultimate goal is not compromise or one side changing to adapt to the other, as some might think. True intercultural competence involves finding synergistic solutions that bridge the differences while allowing everyone involved to remain authentic to their core values.

Once we become aware of our own values, we need to understand that others may have grown up in very different conditions and have developed very different, yet equally valid, values. Their normal may be your abnormal. Your right may be their wrong.

For example, in parts of Scandinavia, it is a totally normal practice for parents to leave their babies asleep in a stroller outside a store or café while they shop or grab a bite to eat. Not only is this not normal where I live, it’s a practice that would likely result in the parents being severely judged, if not arrested.

As educators, we can help students understand their own values and how they’ve been shaped.

Imagine you teach finance—a subject seemingly unrelated to intercultural learning. Yet our attitudes and values surrounding money have been shaped over time—often in implicit, unconscious ways—by our cultural groups. Where we grow up—the country, region, and type of community—along with our socio-economic status, religion, school, family, and so much more, influence how we feel and act toward money. As a result, our values, beliefs, and assumptions surrounding all things financially-related will not be the same as everyone else’s.

As a professor of finance, if we want to help students succeed in the field, we should help our students understand their own values surrounding this topic and where they come from. Students also need to understand that they may eventually work with and for people who hold very different values. Understanding this—and knowing how to bridge the difference—will surely help them be more successful and effective in their work.

Helping Students Develop Values Awareness

How do we do that?

It can actually be quite easy (and fun!) to help students explore their values around a topic. The following are four activities you can adapt to a variety of situations to help increase your students’ awareness of their own values, and help them begin to understand and respect that others may have very different, yet valid, ways of seeing the world.

Values Identification Activity. Ask students to write down 3-4 groups they’re currently a part of or have been a part of in the past that have impacted how they think about the topic at hand (finances/money, for example). These could be groups as big as a nation state or as small as a nuclear family. Provide your own examples.

Then, next to each group, ask them to identify 1-2 values they learned from each group related to the given topic. For example, next to their nuclear family, they might write “importance of saving” or “distrust of government/institutions.” Suggest they think about what was rewarded or punished within the group. Again, model the way with your own examples.

Next, have students circle the 2-3 values they feel most impact their attitudes toward the given topic. Then give them a few minutes to reflect in writing on what they’ve learned about themselves through this process.

Once students have finished, ask them to share their insights with a partner. Discussing with someone else and then debriefing as a full group can help them see that other people have had different experiences that may have led to both different and similar values around the given topic.

Be sure to debrief afterward, asking students what they learned and how they can apply that learning in their lives and current or future work.

Proverbs Activity. Proverbs—and similar types of sayings—are means of implicitly teaching values. So one simple way to get at people’s values is to ask them to identify sayings they recall hearing regularly.

Returning to the finance example, you could give students several minutes to write down as many proverbs or sayings they remember hearing or saying related to finance and money. For example, my father always used to say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Provide a similar example of your own.

If students find it difficult to come up with enough proverbs/sayings, have them share in the full group and create a master list first.

Once students have a list of sayings, ask them to choose the 2-3 that they agree with most. Then instruct them to identify the values at the core of each saying (i.e. “Money doesn’t grow on trees” = value of hard work).

Again, have the students share and discuss with a partner, then debrief the activity as a full group.

Word Association Activity. In this activity, you provide students with a list of words related to the given topic. For example, if you’re teaching Interpersonal Communication, some words you might include could be: listen, compromise, emotional, confront, apologize. Ask students to rate their gut-level reaction to each word on a 1-5 scale, from strongly negative to strongly positive. After each word, ask them to list one or two other words that come to mind when they hear that word.

When they’ve finished, invite students to compare and contrast their answers with a partner, and also discuss where they feel they learned their meanings of the words.

Debrief as a large group. Discuss what students learned from the activity and how they will apply their learning elsewhere.

Values Collage. Because values run so deep, it can be difficult to uncover them. I find using images can sometimes help us access the otherwise inaccessible.

For this activity, make available a wide variety of (culturally appropriate) images, then provide a relevant prompt and ask learners to choose one image or make a collage in response to the prompt (the collage option is often most interesting, but can take more time than the single picture route).

For example, when teaching a course called, “Leading Across Cultures,” I gave students the following prompt: What does good leadership look like? They each got a large piece of paper and were told to select several images and arrange them on their paper to make a collage responding to the prompt.

I then asked students to get in small groups and take turns sharing and explaining their collages to one another.

Before we debriefed as a large group, I asked them to do a few minutes of reflective writing about what they’d learned about their own values surrounding leadership.

After this exercise, many students shared that they hadn’t realized their ideas about leadership were actually “values” that weren’t necessarily shared by everyone else.

Facilitating the Activities

All of these exercises help students reflect on their values and connect the more obvious, above-the-waterline aspects of their culture with the below-the-waterline aspects. By asking learners to share and discuss with one another, we not only ask them to articulate those values, but also help them begin to see how others’ attitudes, beliefs, and values surrounding that same topic may differ.

Be sure to spend at least as much time on the debrief as the you do on the activity itself—this is where much of the learning occurs. One point to emphasize during the debrief of all these activities is that students should not assume that everyone they’ll engage with will share their attitudes, values, and beliefs. If, for example, they become a financial advisor, they will need to listen deeply to their clients to understand and attend to their values around money.

Before using these activities with students, I encourage you to do them yourself. This will help you not only better facilitate the exercise, but also deepen your own understanding of your core values.

Please Share!

I’d love to hear from you about how you are helping students better understand their own values. Please share in the comments section below what you’re doing to develop values awareness, or your experience if you try any of the activities discussed above!

P.S.  And if you by any chance know of a great opportunity for an incredibly smart, bilingual expert in making processes more lean and efficient, proud Sevillano and Spanish foodie, who will be incredibly loyal and hard-working in exchange for a little independence and flexibility, please let me know! 😊

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