When my kids were young and we travelled we used to play this game “How do you know you’re not at home?  What’s different about our surroundings here?”  Over time they got good at going from observing the obvious: different dress, different language being spoken, different seasons, etc… to the more sophisticated – what range of different languages were being spoken, what types of groupings of people might be more/less common, etc… As I travel I find myself playing a similar observation ‘game’.

There is increasingly more written about the importance of listening and some good tools are available, but I find that although our powers of observation are one of the most important aspects of operating in a global world, it is an area that is talked about, written about and most importantly practiced the least. There are very often nonverbal signals sent that will give you important insights that may not be communicated verbally.

Here are some ways you might want to consider practicing your observation skills:

1)      When you walk into your next conference session or large group meeting (some place where you are not immediately expected to talk to someone) wait a few minutes before talking with anyone and look around at what you are seeing.

2)      When you have a few moments to sit in a public space (perhaps waiting for someone to join you for coffee) consciously observe what is going on around you.  You may even want to jot some things down in a journal to reflect upon later.

You will no doubt have or develop other ways to practice that work for you.

Now think about ways you can apply your newly honed observation skills.  What are some of the things you may want to be looking out for?

1)      If you are leading or facilitating a meeting, take a few moments at the beginning of the session to observe the group.  What are some of the individual traits of participants that may impact how they participate in a meeting (who is talking to their neighbor? Who is reading something?) or group dynamics if this is a pre-existing group (Who is deferring to who? What roles are different participants playing? Is everyone communicating in one language or do you hear more than one?).  Consider how these observations and insights might influence the approaches and techniques you use during the session to better engage the group.  If possible, I find it especially useful to meet with the group in advance of facilitating a session, perhaps during an earlier session, so I can have time to observe the group dynamics before I need to actively participate.

2)      If you are a participant in the group, how does what you are observing during the session help you to be a more effective participant?

In a particularly multicultural group how can you demonstrate respect for group members’ multicultural worldviews?  Does the group have culturally grounded frameworks and techniques you will want to be aware of? (e.g., use of storytelling, singing, food, and other culturally and/or spiritually based practices).

There is an old folk saying that ‘there is a reason why we have two ears but only one mouth’.  We also have two eyes – using those ears and eyes before we use our mouth can go a long way to ensuring successful multicultural encounters.