Recently I delivered several training courses to an adult training center in Macau S.A.R., China. This center provides certificate and degree programs in business management, Chinese and Western cultures, and more specifically, in gaming and tourism management. Gaming has been a major attraction in Macau and has now become a booming business after the Macau government issued further gaming licenses in 2002. This center is focusing on training the workforce in gaming and tourism because both industries have a very rapid staff turnover. In fact, the training center believes people-management in Macau will become a major problem in the future because of the massive increase in workplace entrants into the gaming industry. I was invited by the center, to design an introductory program targeted at experienced casino operation supervisors – with mostly high school education backgrounds – and for those who are interested in entering the gaming industry.
Planning a course
I was very excited about this training program because both the training director and I believed that this was the first course in Macau linking conflict management together with the gaming industry. The program was designed to explore the connectivity of the gaming industry and the society of Macau by understanding the theory and practice of conflict management: recognizing how conflicts originate and evolve in the working environment, and learning skills to resolve interpersonal conflicts creatively. This program was actually a series of short courses for a certificate program in the training center, and each course varied from three to nine hours with around 25 students. For courses such as conflict management, requiring some time for students to experience learning and sharing, it was quite a challenge to cover the core topics about conflict management in the gaming industry, to fit in a six-hour class, to manage all the class activities, and to achieve the learning objectives. In this case, the class introduction and learning community agreement could not be scheduled as a one-hour section (some workshops may have more than a one-hour introduction section). However, I believe that the basic course assumptions and goals are very important. We need to explain that the process of understanding and experiencing conflict may consume some time. Although the students might not be interested initially, it helps them be prepared for later activities in the class.
Selecting training materials
I was very careful when selecting the training materials and translating the readers into Chinese. Since I learned conflict management in California, USA, the understanding of all the principles and terms are based on Western culture and English language. For example, the “I-Message” might not be applied exactly in Chinese sentence structure and conversation. Even if I restructured the “I-Message” to be applicable to Chinese grammar, the outcome might not be accomplished as expected in Western culture because expressing feelings (particularly negative feelings) might sometimes be an ineffective way of giving feedback. Terms such as “facilitation” or “empathy” may not be translated literally into Chinese without further explanation. Also, a formal external mediation process is not a very common practice in Macau for settling issues because local companies do not spend as much on litigation as companies in Western countries. These are the factors that make the material translation and selection challenging.
Building learning community
The first difficulty experienced in the class was “building a learning community”. The spirit of a learning community is to share. I did not expect a touchy feely class, but the students did not have much to share in the class. They were very quiet. I realized the reasons for their quiet responses to the learning community exercise after I played a game in the class. Since this course was designed for the gaming industry, I chose a game related to poker cards. This is a game that I learned in class during my studies in California. Each student gets a poker card and puts it on their forehead without seeing his/her own card. With no voice or speech or body language, the students tell each other of his/her own card is a face card or non-face card. The purpose of this game is to see how people understand the “Ace” as a face or non-face card, leading to an interesting question for the class – do we (as the workforce in the gaming profession) understand our culture in the same way? The students tried their very best to tell the others about their cards, however, they always forgot the rules. It was fun. In my observation, they focused on the result rather than the process. This is a very typical teaching method in the old days and even today – content is directly presented and inputted to the students. Therefore their common learning method was focused on the presented content, forgetting that learning is not about results but about the experience of a process.
In view of the fact that the students were so excited about the games and the small group exercises, they always ignored me when I was trying to regain their attention. I spoke louder, clapped harder, and then I thought, “I really need a percussion used by almost every professor during my study in California – a metal bell.” The use of the metal bell is to refresh our minds and to focus our attention in class. I usually enjoyed the sound echoed across the classroom. I brought this metal bell to the class and I was very confident that I could have the whole class’ attention. When I rang the bell, instead of enjoying the beautiful sound of the bell, they all said, “Come back, spirit, come back!” Everybody laughed. Maybe it was not such a good idea. The “ding ding” sound is actually a very typical sound we hear during the rites of a Chinese funeral. The sound may not be that similar, but it is like a symbol of this kind of exercise. It might be uncomfortable for a group of older age students. Next time, I will take into account the student type when selecting an appropriate attention-getting tool.
Understanding of conflict and emotion
During a class discussion, students expressed difficulty understanding “conflict as positive” because it was usually viewed negatively. Their perception of emotional expression was also negative, with connotations or being angry, confused, sad, etc. They confirmed that emotions should not always be expressed, especially at work. However for them, emotions for happiness, love and care were not even considered as “emotional expression”. Somehow, the words “emotional expression” were linked with “losing one’s temper” in their perceptions. This is a difference I experience between Western and Chinese cultures. The terms conflict and emotions are more neutral in Western culture. Westerners might use these words in daily conversations. On the other hand, Chinese people would not usually use the word “conflict”. Rather, a news report would use the word “conflict” (literally) to describe the situation of fighting or war.
At the end of the program, students informed me that they preferred longer courses because conflict management required time for them to digest. I repeated to them that conflict management requires a long learning process. Since the students usually experienced lecture class formats involving only one-way communication – common in colleges or universities – they really appreciated the new interactive learning experiences of group discussion, skill practices, roles plays and games. They enjoyed the classes.
When conducting conflict management courses with students who are new to this topic, it is very important to introduce the term “conflict” in different aspects and to encourage open-mindedness.
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