Published on 12 September 2006
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Creative space - Facilitating a process of meeting interculturally

by Edith SIZOO
Associated Central Topics: Cross-culturalism, dialog and multilingualism . Cultures and responsibility .
Associated General Topics: Cross-cultural .

Note on a methodological approach


In a world that euphemistically is called "the global village", promoting intercultural dialogue has become a fashionable way of demonstrating open-mindedness to people whose ways of thinking and acting are different from one’s own in spite of belonging to the same worldwide community.

However, the practice of this idea by way of conferences, symposia, seminars and workshops, where people from various cultural backgrounds are invited to discuss views on whatever theme the organisers think fit, has shown that in many cases the pretended cultural dialogue turns out to be a series of monologues which pass each other like ships in the night. Thus the discussion takes a multi-cultural shape rather than an inter-cultural one. This is not surprising when one takes a close look at the way such gatherings usually are conceived and organized.

The initiators tend to be mainly preoccupied with bringing to the fore an issue of worldwide scope requiring urgent attention, to a greater or lesser extent combined with a call for action (be it the HIV epidemic, environmental questions, water problems, education, poverty, ’good’ governance, women’s emancipation, immigration, security). _ The programme of the event, bent to the organizer’s will, is filled from minute to minute with knowledgeable speakers giving lectures illustrating the importance of the topic. These are then followed by (little time for) questions-answers. In case the gathering is meant to set out the path for action as well (preferably joint action), the focus is usually on technical/organizational approaches of which the logic should not incite dispute.

In such a cosmopolitan ambiance of good intentions, participants in the event, coming from all over the world, are not likely to feel compelled to point to the way their people back-home tend to perceive the issue concerned and deal with it. That sort of reminder would raise the spectre of cultural divergence and strike a discordant note. Consequently, many international gatherings mask not only the problematic side of cultural diversities, but also their richness; not only the challenges they pose, but also the opportunities they offer.

An additional but essential problem is that international communication is bound to take place in a ’common’ language which may be common in words but not necessarily in the underlying cultural interpretations these words contain.
In a period of increasing international communication there is a tendency of using concepts in a casual manner. They are supposed to be understood in the same way by communities all over the world whose perceptions happen to be rooted in a great variety of different languages. And a language says its culture...
Notions like “democracy”, “(good) governance”, “transparency”, “solidarity”, “development”, “human rights”, “terrorism” etcetera are used carelessly as if they are culturally understood and practised in the same way everywhere. And so the cultural under-standings, which words implicitly carry with them, tend to be rapidly transformed into cultural mis-understandings.

And yet…

These days, because of the growing interconnectedness of political, economic and social relations at world level, worldwide issues are, in due course, bound to reveal cultural dimensions. This is true for environmental problems, unequal access to resources for survival and a life of dignity, women’s issues, human rights, nuclear armament, and many others.
Today’s violent conflicts are increasingly put under the heading of a "clash of civilizations" since Samuel Huntington launched this slogan to characterize the potential conflicts of the 21st century. This may be a too mono-causal way of defining the roots of conflicts, but nobody will deny anymore that these conflicts cannot be reduced to economic and military interests only, and be solved by military and economic measures only. It becomes increasingly clear that cultural specificities have to be faced when assessing what causes so much struggle and pain in this world.

The need to understand the ’otherness’ of others (outer appearance, customs, ideas, worldviews) as a preliminary condition for acting when facing current problems and trying to solve conflicts has become an unavoidable imperative. Intercultural dialogues are of the essence.

A possible approach

A standard recipe for dealing with this imperative does not exist. All one can do is trying out various approaches adapted to specific circumstances and occasions.

In the framework of my interest in intercultural communication and socio-linguistics, I have organized a number of international gatherings on different themes with people from various cultural backgrounds. The Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer, which most generously supported most of them, asked me to write a methodological note on the approach I have tried to apply.

My experience in this field is limited to facilitating a process in which no more than 20 people participated. An so it has no pretension whatsoever to serve as a model. I will nevertheless try to set out some of the basic ideas that guided my approach as well as the way in which (with some variations) the process was structured in concrete terms.
There is, admittedly, a good deal of intuition involved in the practice of these ideas when it comes to choosing words, choosing moments, choosing to let things take their course or to (re)guide them in another direction. After all, each bird is known by its own note… !

Basic ideas

The self as part of a whole
- Each human being is unique and at the same time intrinsically linked to other human beings and the living world around her/him.
- Each human being is rooted in the past, partaking in the present, and sowing seeds for the future
- Each human being is influenced by the history and the worldview [1] of the human group he was born into and the ones he feels he belongs (or has belonged) to in later stages of life
- Each human being has something of value to offer to others.

Unwrapping the cocoon
- The ’otherness’ of others and human behaviour which is not in conformity with the norms one was taught and made one’s own, normally raises fear rather than interest.
- It does require a real effort to open one’s shutters, to put down one’s natural defences, and set out to meet others not only with an open mind but an open heart as well.

Specific within the universal
Quite a large number of human values are universally shared. In almost all traditions of wisdom (religious or otherwise) one finds a preference for dialogue rather than violence, compassion and consideration for others, solidarity and hospitality, truthfulness and sincerity, peace and harmony, justice and equity, and a preference for the common good above self-interest.
However, depending on specific cultural and historical contexts, one finds these values placed in different hierarchical orders. Consequently, while facing similar challenges, people with different cultural backgrounds will be inclined to let different values prevail.

Exploring the way to joint action
While trying to find a common road for dealing with shared problems, a short cut to a common solution translated into action often bypasses people’s culturally coloured ways of situating the problem concerned, leading into side-paths of misunderstandings.

To avoid this unnecessary loss of time, an ongoing exploration focussing on where cultural diversity may intervene with major efforts to solve world-wide problems, will clear the way for establishing the degree of uniformity and diversity in attempts to jointly tackle problems and achieve a common goal. Sometimes one has to accept that there are many ways leading to Rome!

Facilitating a process : Creating creative space

Following the basic ideas set out above, it may be clear that I have come to conceive the organisation of an international gathering for the purpose of facilitating attention for and possibly joint action on issues of worldwide interest, as a momentary meeting point where people, all involved in their individual journeys, convey to each other what their respective cultural heritages tell them to think and/or do about a certain problem. Such a meeting will not bear fruits unless it is embedded in a process of carefully preparing the ground for sowing seeds, for reaping the harvest together and disseminating what has been gained. A process that is encouraging participants to express their individuality and its roots in a particular culture, while at the same time strengthening a bond between them through mutual learning and common enterprise. During the whole process, one has to consciously try to create space for creative interaction.

In concrete terms, this implies facilitating :
• the wish to meet each other
• ample time for listening
• the wish to learn from what each and everyone has to contribute in human and intellectual terms
• an ambiance where there is no wish to dominate, to excel, to talk more than others, but rather where one feels accepted for who one is and can be one’s true self
• each participant to make a contribution which is embedded in her/his cultural context and history
• the wish to create together a ’product’ which is the outcome of a collective process of intercultural learning, exchange, concern and caring, which then will hopefully sow seeds elsewhere and contribute to joint action.

Phases in the process

Phase 1: selection of a topic
Usually the idea for the topic arises out of an already ongoing process [2] which requires an intercultural reflection so as to avoid the pitfalls of cultural misunderstandings. The topic is sketched in broad outlines and areas where culturally diverse approaches to it may occur are tentatively indicated.

Phase 2: selection of participants
After extensive consultations, a list of potential candidates is made by a small advisory group. The criteria for selection aim at balancing a diversity of geographical, cultural, linguistic, professional backgrounds and gender. They receive the outline of the theme and the proposed procedure of the process and are invited to consider participation [3]. In case they are interested, they are requested to explain their motivation to participate. Once the answers received, a selection of participants is made.

Phase 3: first ’tour d’horizon’
The participants are informed about being selected and asked :
a. to write a presentation of themselves (not just a professional CV but including also some particulars about their life).
b. To answer (no more than) three questions related to the subject to be approached specifically from their own cultural background.

Phase 4: second round
The answers of this first round are received by the facilitator and discussed with the advisory group. Subsequently, three new questions are formulated, this time based on an analysis of the results of the first round. All participants receive each other’s introduction of themselves, contributions to the first round and the new questions.
The second round aims at deepening the analysis of the issue concerned by inducing the participants to read all the contributions of the first round before answering the new questions. In this connection, they are also encouraged to ask questions of clarification on the papers received.
Experience shows that the participants are interested in taking cognisance of what the others have written about the same questions, especially because the answers come from other cultural backgrounds.

Phase 5: third round
The second round of papers is received by the facilitator who sends them to all participants with only one new question: "after reading the two rounds of papers, what do you feel are the most important points to be discussed during the coming meeting of the group?" The answers to this third question serve as a basis for proposing a provisional agenda for the meeting.

The effect of the three rounds of questions/answers is that
- the participants are growing slowly into reflection on the theme,
- they have had time to formulate for themselves their ideas, first from their own context and then enriched by reflections of the others,
- each round implies a step forward into the reflection which allows for a much more in-depth discussion during the meeting itself
- participants feel part of a collective creative work
- they are eager to meet the person behind the writings
- there is no competitiveness during the meeting because everybody has had ample chance to offer the best of her/himself.

Phase 6: the meeting
- There are no outside contributors (conférenciers) at the meeting
- Participants take turns in chairing the sessions
- The prolonged meals are taken together
- There is not one reporter for the day. At the end of each day, each participant is asked to write down :
• today I tried to explain that…
• today I understood better / learned that…
These personal reports are a great help for the final report on the meeting which is made afterwards by the facilitator and submitted to the participants for comments before being finalised.

- First, the proposed points for discussion are agreed upon. A preliminary fixed straitjacket for the responses to be fitted in, is avoided.
- The rather free flowing nature of the exchanges of thoughts is intended. It leaves open space for views to emerge and avoids missing out on what may (unexpectedly) prove to be relevant for the approach to the issue concerned. It is meant to catch as much as possible culturally relevant responses within the finally framed output of the process.
- Towards the end of the meeting, conclusions are drawn together on what is shared and where culturally diverging perceptions remain.
- Decisions are then made on the follow-up (which output [4] , who does what, and when and where), as well as ways in which the fruits of the process the group went through can be multiplied so as to be beneficial to others as well.

And finally: the place!

The place for the venue is chosen with great care [5], away from the turmoil of city life, a peaceful corner of the earth which induces people to quiet down, to put aside the pressures of daily life for a while, to enjoy the beauty and mystery of nature, in order to be, to be there and now, to be there to meet the others in their uniqueness and in the common enchantment of the gift of Life we share as human beings.

[1] "Worldview" refers to the major components of what is cognitively recognized as "world" (e.g. person, family, tribe/clan, society, planet, cosmos) and the LINKS between them. (Cp In indigenous communities there is a self-evident link between person/society and Nature = Mother earth, whilst in western societies "nature" is dissociated from the human being and until very recently was supposed to take care of itself). A view on the "world" may exclude or include other than visible "powers" (e.g. the divine).

[2] An example of this is the creation of an Intercultural Research Group consisting of 12 people from various linguistic/cultural backgrounds who each conduct a study on the notion of Responsibility in their own context with a view to publish a collectively created book on the subject. The idea to initiate this group ensued from an ongoing worldwide process aimed at promoting an international Charter of Human Responsibilities.

[3] From the start it is made clear that there will be no financial remuneration for participating and writing papers.

[4] In case the output is a book, the participants finalize their contributions to the book after the meeting enriched by the reactions and suggestions of their fellow participants and the larger discussions at the meeting.

[5] Examples of venues : - the island of Naxos and later the island of Syros in Greece where the group slowly moved into meeting each other during a four hour boat trip through the Cyclades in the Aegean sea.
- A small quiet hill station in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas where the group arrived after a long night in a very Indian train.
- A tiny village in French Burgundy where the group stayed in a 17th century "gentilhommerie", a gentleman’s stately home with large garden, beautiful view and home made food prepared by the châtelaine herself.


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