What a western facilitator should know in China

Last month, I was back in Tianjin in north-eastern China, bordering Hebei province and the greater area of Beijing. I facilitated two programs: ‘Business Cultures of the World from a Chinese perspective’ and the 3-day ‘Influence & Accountability’-program. Having been in Tianjin 3 times last year, I get to know the region, the fantastic people in the company I work with, and the habits. The expectations about training events are certainly different in China compared to western Europe. Below I describe 4 key areas that western facilitators should be aware of when giving training and workshops in China.


The silence when asking a question


We often found ourselves asking the group: “What do you think?” or “How does that work for you?”. Nice open questions, but the response was usually low. People are looking at you in silence, and only when asking the question again or pressing for an answer, somebody will take the lead and answer (usually the same person who always speaks up on behalf of the group). Getting the Chinese to react to your questions is a challenge.

China is a predominantly collectivistic culture (although things change rapidly in multinationals and more individualistic tendencies become visible). In collectivistic cultures, people are used to reaching consensus in a group before speaking up. Asking questions and requiring an answer on the spot can be confrontational, as people are then asked to give an individual answer rather than reach group consensus first. Not knowing the answer puts them in a difficult position and answering something different than the consensus in the group is also not desirable. Individuals ensure they do not stand out from the group, but try to always fit in. This in contrast to western Europe or America, where differentiating yourself from the group is considered a good thing.

We quickly found that the best way to deal with this is to ask a question, then give people the time to speak about this in small groups (in Chinese), and then have them report their answers on behalf of their group. When following this process, the quality of answers you get is very high. Learning accelerates when giving groups the chance to collectively digest the material and form their opinion. And nobody is in a difficult position when allowing short periods of group work before answering the questions asked.


Forming sub-groups


When working in small sub-groups, we usually ask people to form their own groups. This gives participants the possibility to mix, work with different people each time, and increases their commitment to their own learning. If we would form groups, we stimulate participants to ’sit back and let it all happen’. When we leave it to them, this emphasizes the message that they need to take ownership of their own learning objectives.

But forming your own groups is hard in China. The collective culture again asks for a different approach.

First of all, in China, the teacher is expected to decide, and the students to follow and learn as much as they can from the teacher. Second, forming groups yourself is difficult, because when you decide to work with A, that means automatically you have chosen not to work with B. That puts B in a difficult position, and it is your responsibility to avoid that.

So what to do? Follow a neutral process where nobody needs to take position individually. Appoint one person from the team to form the groups (speaking Chinese, all sensitivities can be ironed out between them) or even better: let the team appoint a person to arrange this. And then stand back, and don’t push for your western processes of forming groups.

Making your own planning


In part of our programs, participants plan their own learning journey dependent on their individual learning goals. We call this ‘open space’, and planning open space is usually a chaotic but insightful process that helps participants see how they influence each other in a group task. And where in western cultures people have difficulty with this process and prefer us to provide more structure, the Chinese are very good at quickly planning the matrix of who is going to do what, and when.

In what seems to be a chaotic process, the Chinese gather around the flip charts, and in their own language quickly work out a plan and ensure that the needs of all are met. In a short period of time, the planning is made, and all are happy with the final planning that’s on the board.

Occasionally this results in a bit of a messy outcome, where double bookings occur, timings are mixed up and you can question whether the planning provides the most efficient result for all. That criticism, however, is formed through our western glasses, looking for structured processes and efficient outcomes. If we succeed to step back and trust the process, the pragmatic Chinese will take maximum learnings out of a process that looks messy to us!



Western people are used to challenging the things they learn and engage into lively – and sometimes challenging – discussions with teachers and with each other. This helps them to improve their understanding of new concepts. Not so in China.

A teacher is expected to teach and spread his/her wisdom in a clear and understandable way. A student is expected to learn as much as he/she can from the teacher. You do this by listening very well, making notes, and study the things you did not understand yet in private, or with the help of others.

So western people often feel disappointed when there is no push-back from Chinese participants: no probing questions, no criticism and no challenge for the teacher. Most would decide to leave it with this and conclude that’s the way things are in China.

I found there are very good ways to stimulate interactive learning and even create challenging learning environments. Ask participants in small subgroups questions such as:

  • What would make it difficult to do this at work?
  • Find three reasons why this idea will not work for you.
  • If there is one weak spot in this argument, what is it?

Tell them (in a directive way!) to discuss this shortly within their group and then report out. Now react on it, and let the different subgroups help each other understand the different perspectives. You will suddenly notice that the Chinese – just like Americans or Dutch – can be very critical and challenging. They just have a different – more subtle and indirect – way of expressing their thoughts, as it is their responsibility to show respect for the teacher and not bring him/her in a difficult position.


What are your experiences with teaching in other cultures? I’m truly interested to hear different perspectives. In the meantime, I look forward to my next trip to Tianjin in spring 2019!

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