Some years ago, a partner of mine and I were hired to do a diversity training for a government organization. We started off with our usual friendly enthusiasm, but the demeanor of the group remained somber and unresponsive. As we continued, there were no questions or comments, though we solicited them. Even addressing specific individuals did not produce much more than one word responses and "Dunno's".
We trudged through until break time, hoping perhaps that coffee might stimulate a higher energy level. While the two of us were discussing our bewilderment, one of the participants sidled up to us, apparently having diagnosed our discomfort. The person revealed to us that several people in the room had filed complaints about others and there were threatened lawsuits about harassment and age discrimination. The tension and fear of being cited was so high that people were scared to speak up.
Over lunch time we were able to verify this with the person in charge of our program, who felt both embarrassed and incapable of doing much more than admitting to the situation. The organization was trying to keep this quiet, and, stupefying to us, was their naive belief that a good diversity training would suffice to make all of this go away!
We continued to do our best in the light of what we had heard and, while things improved slightly, we could honestly say that the training was a failure. This was a major professional learning for me and significantly influenced my client intake process. Subsequently, and yet today, I do not hesitate, once a client conversation is well underway to develop a training experience, to ask, literally, if there are any "skeletons in the closet." I spell it out with some examples and lots of follow-up questions. Here is my basic line of questioning:
- Who is the person or who are the persons who have decided on this intervention? Often the person I'm dealing with is simply a representative of someone higher up, so it is enormously valuable to explore much as possible the intentions, motivation, and desired outcomes that are the basis of this work for the person mandating it. We try to speak to that person, once identified, if we can.
- Is there any specific events or series of events that led up to recognizing the importance of doing this specific intervention at this specific point in time? We are well aware that intercultural and diversity interventions, though they may sometimes be done proactively, are very often not recognized as need or useful until a concrete threat or problem is encountered. Often that is too late to prevent a plethora of damages.
- Is there anything that we should know about the relationships of the participants to the system and to each other that will facilitate our being able to speak to their concerns and needs? We need to know any factors, actual or impending that may impede willingness to participate on the part of the target population. These may not be related to our work itself, but might be stress factors simultaneous with its timing.
- Finally, we must ask, "Is there anything else at all that we need to know about and prepare for that might affect the outcomes and success of this project?" Often this is followed up with, "Do let us know, should you become aware of anything, or should anything develop in the lead up to this program, that we need to know in order to be effective?"
Failing this kind of intake, this due diligence, it is likely that we the trainers will bear the brunt of blame should the program misfire.