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Global Flipchart #13

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September 2018

Meaning Snapshots

Understanding the significance of word meanings, especially when facilitating in culturally diverse settings

By Zena-Gabrielle Hailu

Words. They are an integral part of our existence. Still, it’s easy to lose sight of the power they have to filter reality. Each word, snapshot-like, can only partially capture the whole sum of the idea or concept the word intends to convey. It’s important to consider this snapshot-like aspect when designing facilitation processes, especially in linguistically and culturally diverse settings. Does your process revolve around the word “democracy”? Or “participation”? Or is your process a “team building”? How can these words be understood by your participants? If possible, preparing your process with some input from native speakers is recommendable if you are facilitating interculturally.

Instructions can also be understood in different ways depending on the context. Anja Ebers shares a brilliant example of the impact that instruction-giving and the meaning of words can have on facilitation processes:

“In a Lego serious play workshop I recently facilitated, as part of the warm-up, people got the task to randomly connect 5 Lego blocks. The resulting creations were intended to train the participants’ metaphor-muscle. While almost all participants managed to accomplish the task within 10-20 seconds, one participant took a really long time. We then went through the debriefing, each participant holding up their creation and explaining why it represented a word I gave them. We were all a bit concerned by the one participant who had needed so much time for the task, because her artifact - which was meant to illustrate the word "network"- was made up of far more than 5 blocks. At the end of her explanation, one of the other participants cheekily pointed out "and because you wanted to include a big variety of blocks, you chose not to meet the 5 block requirement for the task, right?" She looked at us, utterly astonished, and pointed out that she had connected 5 blocks: she picked 5 blocks of the same shape and connected them using other blocks. This was a real “a-ha” moment for our group.”

As this example illustrates, seemingly simple task instructions can be interpreted in very different ways, even within one linguistic/cultural context. As Anja put it, “It was a moment of realization for our group, how interesting human communications is - it's a wonder that it is functioning at all ;-) “If you would like to learn more about the importance of the meaning of words in the intercultural context, as well as other dimensions of cross-cultural communication, here are some resources I can recommend: