Best Practices: Confucius Meets Plato

Challenges and strategies for training in Asia.

By Neal Goodman, Ph.D.

How do the cultural differences between the East and the West affect the approach a Western trainer must take when designing and/or facilitating a program for Asians? Broadly speaking, the Western approach to learning, based on Plato, is one of discovering: seeking new knowledge, innovation, and change. In contrast, the Asian approach to learning and development, based on Confucius, focuses on achieving a more perfect social order based on tradition, learning the truth from a master, following the right path, and maintaining harmony between opposing realities.

One other major difference is that in Western societies, students are expected to learn to learn; instructors facilitate the learning, but the emphasis is on self-discovery and an open discussion of ideas. Conversely, Eastern students are expected to listen and learn; asking questions and “sticking out” may result in negative outcomes from both the instructor and the other students.

Training in Western cultures is likely to include dialogue between instructors and students. Students are likely to be called upon to provide their own insights and opinions. This is not the norm in Asian cultures. If an Asian student is pressured to voice an opinion to an instructor during a training session, his or her response is likely to automatically be in the affirmative in order to avoid any loss of face.

Training across cultures always requires some cultural education. Here are a few ways to attain such knowledge:

  • Find a cultural informant. Ideally, this person could review your course content and delivery style and make recommendations on how to adapt the program to the audience; it may even be helpful to have a local trainer co-facilitate.
  • Enroll in a course on Instructing Across Cultures to learn the fundamental differences in instruction and learning styles and some practical tools and strategies for effective instruction across cultures.
  • Read about the culture you are visiting. There are Websites that have the front page of most major newspapers in the world. See
  • • Arrive at the location in advance, and take the time to learn about the local culture in person.
  • Learn the communication styles of the participants regarding silence, verbal, vocal, and non-verbal communications.
  • • Avoid slang, jargon, and acronyms as the trainees may not understand them.
  • Maintain genuine curiosity; enjoy the adventure of the learning experience.

Here are a few more specific tips to help guide Westerners training Asians:

  • Establish your credibility. Have a local leader introduce you to the class and talk about your accomplishments, experience, expertise, education, and publications if any.
  • Use small groups for interactive discussion. Break the students into small groups and have them ask and respond to instructor questions as a group.
  • Err on the side of formality. Use your title if you have one.
  • Understand what it means to be the “expert” in the context of an Asian culture. Asian participants likely are coming to the session to hear your ideas, not provide their own.
  • Don’t use “yes” or “no” questions to verify understanding. If you must check to ensure whether a student understands a concept, ask him or her to provide an example.
  • Formalize and celebrate the conclusion of the training. Arrange to have a closing ceremony or banquet if possible. Hand out certificates, and, by all means, arrange to have a group photo with you in it to share with the group at the end of the program or to be sent after the program.

If you have any case studies or examples of best practices in training and development across cultures, please send them to me at, and I will share them with the other readers of this column. The best suggestion to this column will receive a complementary copy of a new Cultural Tendencies Diagnostic Tool.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.