Here’s a depressing thought: People don’t learn from experience.
If you don’t believe me, how come my friend Theresa got married for the fourth time? How come my neighbors went to India and returned with their previous levels of denial and defense?
The truth is that people learn from reflecting on their experience. This is especially true of multicultural experiences, whether real or simulated. I firmly believe in the importance of reflection. To me, all experiential learning activities in diversity and inclusion merely provide an excuse for reflection.
As a facilitator, you encourage this type of reflection by conducting a debriefing discussion. During this debriefing, your participants reflect on their experience, relate them to the real world, discover useful insights, and share them with each other. Debriefing helps you to wind down the activity, reduce negative reactions among the participants, and increase insights.
A major dilemma in debriefing is maintaining a balance between structure and spontaneity. I suggest that you prepare several questions for the debriefing discussion. During the actual debriefing, encourage and exploit spontaneous comments from your participants. If the conversation degenerates into a stream-of-consciousness meandering, fall back on your prepared list of questions.
You can conduct a debriefing session after any activity, but not all activities benefit from debriefing. It is all a question of focusing on the training objectives. For example, you can conduct a role-play on negotiating with people from a high uncertainty-avoidance culture. You can then debrief your participants about their personal reactions to the need for uncertainty avoidance. However, if your goal is to train your participants to accommodate high uncertainty avoidance, the debriefing discussion may focus on inclusive strategies.
What types of activities benefit from debriefing? Here are five characteristics of experiential activities that benefit from a debriefing discussion:
- An activity in which the connection between the events and the real world are not clear-cut. For example, the activity may involve playing a card game to reflect implicit and explicit cultural norms.
- An activity that generates intense feelings and emotions that distract participants from focusing on logical patterns and root causes. For example, you may conduct a debate on gun control between a team of women and another team of men.
- An activity that happens so rapidly that the significance of the critical events is lost on the participants. For example, you may ask the participants to pair up quickly without giving them time to think through the variables in the partnering process.
- An activity whose significance is likely to be interpreted in different ways by the participants from different cultural groups.
- An activity that focuses on principles, insights, feelings, and beliefs rather than on facts, procedures, and cognitive strategies.
Phases in the Debriefing Process
Several models are available for structuring a debriefing discussion. Here is my debriefing model that contains six phases:
- How do you feel? Invite the participants to get strong feelings and emotions off their chest. This makes it easier for them to objectively analyze the experience during the later phases.
- What happened? Collect data about what happened during the experiential activity. This encourages the participants to discover the impact of individual and cultural differences.
- What did you learn? Encourage the participants to generate and discuss different principles. This requires the participants from different cultural groups to identify differences in their perceptions.
- How does this relate to the real world? Discuss the relevance of the experiential activity to the participants' cross-cultural experiences.
- What if? Encourage the participants to apply their insights to new contexts. Use alternative scenarios to speculate on how people's behaviors would change.
- What next? Ask the participants to undertake action planning. Invite them to apply their insights from the experiential activity to cross-cultural collaboration.
Failing to conduct a debriefing discussion will prevent participants from maximizing their learning. Worse yet, an experiential activity without debriefing will leave participants in a confused state, wondering, “What was that all about?”