Intercultural Competence – Can it be measured?

While in Tallinn I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Milton Bennett’s speech: “Culture is not like an Iceberg, and Competence is not like Intelligence: The Ravages of Reification in Intercultural Theory & Research”[1]. As expected the temperature in the room directly rose and animated discussions followed the presentation. What sparked so many reactions was the fact that Dr. Bennett pointed towards the idea that intercultural competence is not a ‘thing’  – and therefore cannot be measured and/or ranked – as one cannot assume that it is normally distributed within a given population.

In his recent Blog post: “The Mismeasure of Intercultural Competence” he even goes a little further drawing a parallel between intelligence (IQ) and Intercultural Competence (IC). He says: “IQ was (…) devised as a system to rank people in terms of how much g[2] they had, and it is still with us today. The point here is that g (and consequently IQ) has no identifiable existence outside of our measurement.” When originally observing Intercultural Competence in behavior, whereby some people obviously had more of it than others, we directly assumed that the ones “(…) more competent had some set of measurable inherent qualities and characteristics that accounted for their competence”, hence something that could be measured.

One can easily understand why these statements cause so many reactions… it leaves HR professionals, trainers, coaches, consultants etc. with a big ‘question mark’, meaning a gap where the traditional measurement tools normally would have been situated. Exactly as in other domains – like communications for example – if you cannot prove in numbers how the situation was before your intervention and where it stands after, how can you show the ROI and show your value to the organization?

Concerning IQ, it is generally assumed that it is not the only factor determining how well a person will function in international or national teams, with employees or as a manager/supervisor. Whereas technical skills are important, different ways are found nowadays to express a persons’ skill levels; emotional intelligence with its different aspects for instance, well described by Daniel Goleman, is one example of a ‘new’ way of analyzing people’s competences when working together.

I guess in the case of Intercultural Competence, new ways have to be found to express how well a person adapts and others don’t. Certainly interesting new ground for research!




[1] You can find his slides here

[2] General Intelligence Factor

Forum Theatre – A powerful tool

Intercultural CommunicationsWhile attending the SIETAR Conference in Tallinn, Estonia last week, I came in contact with a very interesting form of expression: the “Forum Theatre“. Originally created by Augusto Boal, the Forum Theatre or ‘Theatre of the oppressed” proposes a way of teaching people how to change the situation they are in.

In fact, real life situations in which participants have observed some form of oppression are re-played and discussed within the group under the guidance of an experienced trainer or coach. Whereas this particular form of theatre does not propose direct solutions, it however allows participants and observers to directly intervene in the play, change the course of action and thus experience first hand how situations can evolve and what this feels like. Many emotions are set free and subsequently discussed and debriefed within the group.

Introduced to us by a SIETAR colleage from Poland, I found it to be a powerful way deal with difficult situations! Do you know this particular form of theatre and what are your experiences with it? Looking forward to your reactions!



Did you know that you actually have two brains?

Human brainOn my way to Tallinn where I am attending the 2013 SIETAR Congress, I read some interesting articles related to intercultural research, mindfulness and leadership. It always strikes me, how much everything is interrelated!

For example I read that leadership is not about controlling others and the environment we live/work in but to accept and treat others as ‘human beings’ who as such are capable of compassion, creativity and generosity. All it needs is somebody to bring out these qualities and skills, hence to work with collective emotional intelligence rather than with individual intellects only.

Whereas this would appear obvious to a mindful leader, another article expanding these thoughts by Amnon Buchbinder on Philip Shepherd’s ‘Out of our heads’ retained my attention. The latter explores the implications of the fact that there are two brains (yes!) within us: the cranial one which we know and the so-called ‘enteric brain’ located in our bellies (in the gut).

From my understanding of neuroscience, I know that there is a web of neurons in the belly allowing us to listen to the outside world through our bodies; what I did not know though, was how we as humans in our Western culture historically ended up putting so much emphasis on our ‘cranial brain’ and the intellect thus moving our ‘thinking’ self to the head.

We live in a ‘head-centered’ society and of course this has multiple consequences in our lives, on our organisational cultures, our education etc.etc. Interestingly, the idea of an integrated mind and body (i.e. the harmony we need to achieve in order to align our ‘two brains’), “the embodied feeling and lived experience” (Bennett, Castiglioni) also lies at the center of intercultural adaptation: the intuitive feeling of a culture is as important as cultural awareness and knowledge of a foreign culture to be able to effectively deal with difference.

Food for thought! During the next days here in Tallinn, I will certainly be learning many more new aspects of intercultural research, training and education. I can only say that listening to my gut feeling has brought me here and the practice of mindfulness is certainly one way of being in touch with myself again.

If you haven’t done so already, please follow my blog to learn more about Mindful Leadership & Intercultural Communications. I will be offering some free 20 minutes coaching sessions very soon for those of you who don’t really know what it is, want to try it out or simply are in need of coaching. Sign up here!