What’s in a Workshop?

“Ben, you’re bombing.” I stood in front of 50 Filipino Local Government officials, a mic in my hand as I described the participatory mapping activity set before us. It was the first morning of a workshop on Disaster Vulnerability and Adaptation, and I was facilitating a mapping exercise to identify high-risk areas and potential human impacts. When I introduced the activity, not a head rose. Not an eye lifted to meet me, and the collective murmur of side conversations grew to a din as the audience strained to speak over my intrusive attempts at facilitation.

What was going on? Why was the audience ignoring me? Was it my English? My nationality? My personality? I had facilitated trainings in schools, health centers, and government offices; in multiple countries and multiple languages. Never had I missed the mark so badly. And yet, thanks to the quick assistance of a Filipina colleague, by the end of the session we had somehow met our goals. The attendees made detailed risk maps, identified primary impacts in each location, and discussed cross-sectoral response. The event organizers smiled with satisfaction, and- to my shock- asked me to facilitate another session the next morning. Perplexed and uneasy, I laid the mic down and began making sense of what I now understand to be a vital lesson for environmental practitioners.

The San Jose LGU worked out this natural disaster risk map, highlighting areas prone to flood and storm surge, and color coded by types of human impact.
Participants and trainers at the “Disaster Vulnerability and Adaptation” workshop for Local Government Unit members from 6 municipalities

So often we environmental managers are technical experts, scientists striving to impart knowledge so local stakeholders can make better-informed decisions. In this work, we often rest on the laurels of our expertise. But to effectively play this role, no amount of scientific or technical erudition will suffice. Watching seasoned Filipino facilitators helped me understand this.I learned, for example, that in Filipino workshops talking over the speaker is quite normal, and not considered rude. Filipino facilitators routinely hush the audience, chime “Heloooo-ooooo” into the mic, or even clap to get everyone’s attention. Better yet, they avoid the problem altogether by building personal relationships with audience members from the moment they set foot in the room. Filipino workshops slot in opportunities for such relationship-building, through copious meals, snacks, tea breaks, and “refresher” activities that get everyone on their feet and having fun. Once I started using these breaks to form one-on-one bonds, facilitation became vastly easier.

Finally, I learned the importance of self-deprecating humor. Humor, always a valuable tool for public speakers, is one of the most challenging aspects of working across cultures and languages. In the Philippines, my colleague advised, “you need to chip yourself down a notch, so they know you’re one of them.” The Filipino tenet of humility was key here: I needed to build trust with the audience by laughing at myself, thereby rejecting a position “higher” than theirs.

Practiced workshop facilitator Anabel leads a workshop session on participatory vulnerability assessment

We approach ecological systems, energy policies, and conservation biology with incredible attention to detail and a recognition of profound complexity. Sometimes, we forget to bring the same rigor and diligence to our interactions with people. But our ability to reach environmental goals goes only as far as our ability to work with diverse groups of people- be they policy makers, donors, customers, or fishing communities. To be effective, we must make ourselves aware of culture and values, of the minute and nuanced practices that build effective communication in societies different from our own. And we must be ready to put our expertise aside. In the Philippines, this means honoring humility and the primacy of personal bonds. It means using meals to make first-name-basis friends; standing in the middle of the room rather than the front; using jokes to cut ourselves down to size; talking loudly and shushing at will. In short, it means taking culture as seriously as we take science, and being ready to adjust.