Increasing Buy-In for Intercultural Learning

Jun 04, 2019


Recently, I sent out a survey to my audience to find out what your burning questions are around intercultural learning. One theme that I saw come up over and over in the responses is an issue around getting buy-in, both from students as well as from faculty, staff, and administrators. The question continually asked was: How do we convince others this is important? There seems to be widespread frustration that many students and educators don’t necessarily see the value of intercultural learning and training.


Re-Frame the Issue as an Opportunity to Practice Bridging Across Differences

I want to suggest that we re-frame the issue, not as one of convincing others, but one of bridging a cultural gap. This is an opportunity to use our own intercultural skills to communicate and act in ways that are effective and appropriate with people who have different perspectives and experiences than us.

Let’s try to move away from seeing the issue as one of “them not getting it” or needing to “convince” others of the value of intercultural learning. Instead, let’s focus on something we have more control over—ourselves.

What if we took what we’re experiencing as a sign that our message is not connecting with its intended audience, recognize that they may have an equally valid yet very different perspective on this matter, and consider how we might use our own intercultural skills to bridge the divide?


What Might that Look Like?

First, come into awareness around your own feelings and judgments—both positive and negative—about the other individuals involved, as well as yourself. Where do you think these feelings and judgments stem from? If you’re feeling just a little bit righteous, notice that (I know that feeling!).

Second, get curious about other perspectives. Try to set your judgments aside at this point and seek to really understand the other’s experience, point of view, and concerns. Observe and ask questions to try to truly appreciate where they are coming from.

Keep in mind that the quality of your questions will influence the quality of the information you are able to gather. Frame your questions in a value-neutral, rather than judgmental, way. Ask holistic, big-picture questions to try to understand what they are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. For example, rather than asking “Why aren’t you interested in intercultural learning?” or “Why don’t you support this initiative?” try “I’d really like to better understand your perspectives on…” Try to learn what’s important to them.

Perhaps most importantly, listen for understanding, not to formulate a response. The only way you should respond at this point is with clarifying questions to deepen your own understanding.

Next, try to truly empathize with that perspective. This requires going deeper than simply understanding another’s perspective on a cognitive level. Can you imagine what it might feel like to be in their position (not to be you in their position, but to be them in their position)? To feel what they say they are feeling?

Allow yourself some time and space to truly digest, appreciate, and empathize with the perspectives that have been shared with you. Take a walk in nature, run, swim, knit, work in your garden, meditate, or engage in whatever form of activity that helps clear your head (and if you can’t identify such an activity, take some time to find one and make it a habit in your life).

Once you feel you can truly empathize with the other’s perspective, consider how you could adapt your message, approach, or even the initiative or program itself so that it will truly resonate with that person or people. The goal is not to “convince” anyone of anything, but to find the synergy in what you are seeking to do and what others value. Maybe that means shifting the way you talk about intercultural learning, helping them see how it fits into their goals and aspirations, or changing your approach altogether (not giving up on intercultural learning, but forging a different path for getting there).

For example, maybe you work with study abroad students pre-departure who you thought had no interest in intercultural learning, but now you’ve come to better understand that there are a million things that they are thinking about prior to going abroad and so intercultural learning just doesn’t rank very high on their list of priorities (partly because they don’t really understand what the term means). You could adapt how you share information pre-departure, so students are getting all the important logistical stuff they want well in advance, but you’re sharing that information via an online format, and then reserve your in-person time to focus on intercultural learning. Also, you could connect the intercultural activities you do directly to the reasons students told you they’ve chosen to study abroad.

To summarize, in order to be more effective at getting buy-in for intercultural initiatives, you need to practice intercultural competence yourself. This is why I’m always stressing the importance of working on our own intercultural development as educators (check out the July 2017 blog post for more about that).

I know you might be thinking “easier said than done” right now. And you couldn’t be more right! Acting in interculturally competent ways is rarely the easiest or quickest way to do something. But when you’re interacting with people from different backgrounds, cultures, or even just perspectives, practicing intercultural competence is going to be the most effective route. So if what you’re doing right now isn’t working, I’d encourage you to try it. The good news is that you can make this more habitual through practice.


An Example

I’d like to conclude by sharing a story. In a previous position I held, I was responsible for developing an intercultural course that was taught at study abroad centers around the world, and then training and supporting the resident staff who were teaching the course. The curriculum included a holistic intercultural methodology, and the staff received training to learn to both practice the methodology themselves and teach it. There was one resident director who I could tell, during the training, questioned the methodology. He was very intellectual, and from his perspective this methodology probably seemed a bit “touchy-feely,” for lack of a better word.

Several months later, I heard that he was not teaching the methodology in the course. The curriculum was supposed to be consistent across sites (with room for adaptation to the local cultural context), so I couldn’t really allow for such a critical component of the course to be eliminated at one site. I emailed the resident director and scheduled a time to chat with him about it.

When we talked, I started by asking a lot of questions and trying to really understand his perspective on a deeper level. Then, I told him I understood and respected where he was coming from (because I truly did) and felt it wasn’t in anyone’s best interest for him to try to teach that aspect of the course. He obviously wasn’t comfortable teaching the methodology, and having him teach something he didn’t feel invested in wouldn’t serve his students or the program.

I also explained, however, the need for a certain consistency across the curriculum, and that the other resident directors had nothing but positive things to say about the methodology in question, which suggested his concerns weren’t shared by others and therefore not a reason to eliminate it from the course. “So,” I explained, “we need to include this methodology in the course, we’ve established that you shouldn’t be the one teaching it, now I need you to help me brainstorm solutions.” Together we explored the possibilities, and ultimately decided that he would reach out to a colleague in a nearby town who also taught this course (and loved the methodology we were referring to so much that he’d taught it to his own teenage son); the idea was that they would work out a solution to co-teach the course at the two sites, with each teaching the part that aligned most with their strengths.

At the end of that discussion, the resident director confessed to me that our conversation had gone a lot differently than he had anticipated. “How so?” I asked. He explained that he’d assumed I would try to convince him he had to teach the course as it was designed. He’d been surprised by my desire to understand his perspective and then work with him to come up with solutions. (The irony is that the approach that I took with him was basically me practicing the methodology that he didn’t want to teach!) I hadn’t sought to convince him of anything, but to deeply understand and appreciate his perspective, then creatively adapt my approach in order to achieve the goal in an appropriate way.



So, the next time you find yourself frustrated that a student or colleague doesn’t seem interested in intercultural learning, I want to encourage you to re-frame the situation and put your intercultural skills to work by doing the following:

  1. Examine your own feelings and judgments around the situation.
  2. Get curious and ask questions to better understand their perspective.
  3. Move beyond cognitive understanding to try to deeply empathize with those involved and their perspective.
  4. Consider how to adapt your approach or message in such a way that it will truly resonate with those you’re engaging with.

Join the Conversation!

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