How our Spanish Cultural Workshops are helping to bridge cultural divides

How our Spanish Cultural Workshops are helping to bridge cultural divides

I’ve been working with people in transition between countries for over 20 years. So it was a huge honor to use my experience to co-host a couple of Spanish Cultural Workshops with a group of displaced Ukrainians in Madrid. The sessions took place in October at the Biblioteca Angel Gonzalez and at the Instituto Internacional in Madrid. I presented the workshops in English and they were perfectly translated into Ukrainian by my co-host Iryna Shvartsblat.

Iryna herself had to flee the Russian invasion of Ukraine and it was her idea to set up these Spanish cultural workshops. She’d previously lived in the USA and Israel, so was aware of how important it is to develop cultural sensitivity. “Firstly I am so grateful that Almendra Staffa-Healey supported this idea. The intention was, together with the help of an experienced expert, to shed some light on the Spanish culture for the temporarily displaced Ukrainians in Madrid — in order to make the process of suddenly finding themselves in a new cultural environment at least a little more understandable. It’s a way for us to find ourselves and our curiosity,” she explained.

Spanish Cultural Workshops

It was a huge honor to use my experience to co-host a couple of Spanish Cultural Workshops with a group of displaced Ukrainians in Madrid in October. Photo ©: Suze McCullagh

I always come at these sessions with the idea of teaching people to really think about their own cultural values because, by recognizing those, they’ll be more able to understand their personal reactions to new values that may seem ‘foreign’ to them.

“Concerning Ukraine and Ukrainians, from my perspective, I would share about the value of the freedom to live, to experience, to develop and to build one’s own life, society, and country according to our own choices, feelings, priorities and culture.” Iryna Shvartsblat

The participants worked on some exercises followed by group discussions so they could get a real handle on what is important to them. Then we went through some of the main Spanish cultural norms — from their strong group orientation through to the powerful thread of tradition and stability that runs through all facets of Spanish life.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Moving countries is never easy but when the decision is forced on you, like for the majority of Ukrainians, it makes it doubly difficult. Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo ©: Gleb Albovsky on Unsplash

Lots of fascinating discussions were generated during the sessions. Such as how easy is it to get Spanish companies to take on new ideas if they tend to be bound to traditional ways of doing things? Is politics freely discussed in a Spanish office environment? Obviously making generalizations is always problematic and my favorite phrase of ‘it depends’ frequently came up! But I was able to give a good overview of how to conduct oneself within the context of a Spanish work situation. Both Spanish Cultural workshops went really well and the positive and grateful feedback from participants was fantastic to receive.

Bridging cultural divides

And, interestingly, as a consequence of these Spanish Cultural workshops, people are getting in touch with us. Tatiana Tsymbal who is based in Zurich was particularly interested in our strategies as she is working on similar workshops in Zurich, Switzerland. I gave her tips and advice so that she could set up Cultural workshops for Ukrainians in Switzerland. It’s so wonderful that our networks are expanding thanks to our common goal of helping others and bridging cultural differences. If you’re interested in setting up a similar workshop for your organization or company, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for more information


The 23 Inner Development Goals and how Intercultural Understanding supports them

The 23 Inner Development Goals and how Intercultural Understanding supports them

Sometimes the pressures of modern living can make us feel that we, as individuals, are helpless. That we are incapable of effecting change around us. Which is why the concept behind Inner Development Goals is so important. Instead of shrugging our shoulders in apathy, we can take action on a personal level, knowing that it’ll have reverberations on a global level. 

Pine leaf - inner development goals

Humility is one of the 23 Inner Development Goals that will help us achieve one of the aims of environmental sustainability set by the UN

The Inner Development Goals are basically 23 skills that we can all work on – encompassing such traits as our inner compass, humility and perseverance – with the idea that through working on ourselves, we’ll make better decisions, which in turn will help achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The SDGs were announced in 2015 and are aimed at ending poverty and inequality with strategies to improve health and education, while keeping a strong focus on environmental preservation and tackling climate change. 

“Outside perspective is complemented by an inside perspective, we need inner development work to reach sustainability goals.” Tomas Bjorkman

Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals were declared in 2015 but there is a sense that very slow progress is being made towards their fulfillment

The Inner Development Goals: bringing an inner perspective into play

The Inner Development Goals were founded by the 29k Foundation (who also have an amazing free app that can help you with your mental health and connect with an online, supportive community), Ekskäret Foundation, and The New Division. Subtitled ‘Transformational Skills for Sustainable Development,’ it was developed as a response to the slow progress towards the SDGs. 

As Tomas Bjorkman, one of the founders expresses: “outside perspective is complemented by an inside perspective, we need inner development work to reach sustainability goals.” If businesses and governments are held accountable as well as the individual there is much more chance of progress towards the SDGs being made.

Below is the list of the crucial five dimensions of the Inner Development Goals.

  1. Being – Relationship to Self: Cultivating our inner life and developing and deepening our relationship to our thoughts, feelings and body help us to be present, intentional and non-reactive when we face complexity.
  2. Thinking – Cognitive Skills: Developing our cognitive skills by taking different perspectives, evaluating information and making sense of the world as an interconnected whole is essential for wise decision-making.
  3. Relating – Caring for Others and the World: Appreciating, caring for and feeling connected to others, such as neighbors, future generations or the biosphere, helps us create more just and sustainable systems and societies for everyone.
  4. Collaborating – Social Skills: To make progress on shared concerns, we need to develop our abilities to include, hold space and communicate with stakeholders with different values, skills and competencies.
  5. Acting – Driving Change: Qualities such as courage and optimism help us acquire true agency, break old patterns, generate original ideas and act with persistence in uncertain times.

Here at Intercultural Understanding, the way we work is very much aligned with these core values.

Building intercultural competence and recognizing and accepting diversity is a developmental process. It requires increasing knowledge of your own cultural attitudes and values. When working with educational institutions or businesses, our workshops and talks are all about personal developmental growth. We get our clients to question their own values and think about how others may feel. Increasing our knowledge regarding how other people make meaning of the world expands our cognitive skills and provides us with an opportunity to see things from new perspectives.

Sometimes this can be a challenging task and we may feel resistance. Managing our emotions is a fundamental part of our work and is built into all our workshops and coaching activities. The idea that we need to start from the inside to really bring about meaningful change resonates strongly with us. If you have any questions about our programmes or workshops, drop us a line! 

The importance of belonging and showing up as yourself

The importance of belonging and showing up as yourself

Who do you think you are? Is your identity tied up with your nationality? Your sexuality? Do you find yourself shifting in terms of your sense of belonging over time? The concept of belonging and identity is something I’ve always been fascinated in. I think it has so many ramifications as to how we interact with others and how we feel about ourselves. So I was excited to give a webinar at the start of September to SIETAR Spain members on this subject. Entitled ‘Interculturality and Belonging’ I wanted to show how our own identities and sense of belonging impacts on relationships – both personal and professional.

Belonging webinar Almendra Staffa-Healey

Hosting a webinar for SIETAR Spain members gave me an opportunity to explore the concepts of belonging and identity with the participants

I started out explaining how I, as a Third Culture Kid, have always struggled with my sense of belonging. Am I Spanish? Or American? Or a curious mix of both? Having lived and moved between both countries and cultures from a young age, it’s something I’ve always grappled with.

And this need to feel like we belong to a tribe is inherently part of the human psyche. Because when we feel we are respected and understood, then we’re more likely to open ourselves up to others. We’re more likely to participate and pass on knowledge to those around us. In daily life, a work or an academic environment, if we feel recognized by the system we’re in, we can choose to share our inherent value with those around us. When we don’t feel like we belong or aren’t smart or funny enough, we feel fragile, at risk, and withdraw.

When we belong, our discretionary energy and our passion emerge and we connect. Discretionary energy is the energy we use in making our decisions. I’m very interested in it because of my work on Personal Leadership, and what we call the PL Choice Point. It has to do with whether what you do is aligned with your being, with what is good for you and what is good for the other person.
For the workplace, Susan M. Heathfield, an HR and Management Consultant, defines it as “the energy an employee chooses to exert in service of co-workers or customers at work, or not” ( My job is to help others to be themselves in order to thrive in the systems in which they live, study and work.

“We can’t show what we can do until we can show up as who we are.” Indeed Career Portal

Useful resources to help define our sense of belonging

During the session, I drew on various resources such as the Dimension of Identity Wheel created by Gardenswartz and Rowe ( and the Johari window model ( These are powerful tools that help us work out our identity, what’s important to us and how other people may see themselves.

Dimensions of Identity Wheel

The Dimensions of Identity Wheel is a useful resource when dealing with identity and belonging

I explained the importance of having sensitivity to others. And to garner this empathy, we first need to understand ourselves. The Johari Window method is about sharing parts of yourself with others that you normally keep private, in order to build trust. It can also be used to get feedback from others on aspects you don’t readily see in yourself.

While it’s important to consider that private and personal information sharing should to be done in a safe space and only if you feel comfortable. Sharing lighter, less identity critical personal information can be a great way of building connection within teams, and thus initiate an environment of greater belonging. 

I then asked the participants to think of something personal about themselves and to then share it with others in the small breakout rooms. The feedback after the group discussions showed what a great exercise this is. “I felt vulnerable but, at the same time, protected by every one,” shared one participant. While another admitted “I couldn’t decide which skeleton to get out of my closet! It made me realize just how complex we all are – there are so many parts of us that we choose not to share with others. But even just sharing something small makes a difference and creates an enriching experience.” The Johari Window can be used to create an environment where you feel that you can share, and at the same time it can create the environment that supports it.


To highlight everything that we had discussed and to show what empathy means in practice, just before finishing off I showed the participants this powerful video by Career portal Indeed. It illustrates how a job interview can go so much more smoothly for all involved if simple questions such as which pronouns people prefer are used. As Indeed point out themselves “we can’t show what we can do until we can show up as who we are.” To view the webinar, click here.

To find out more about Intercultural Understanding, please feel free to reach out!

Why it’s brave to face up to your unconscious biases and support the LGBTQ+ community

Why it’s brave to face up to your unconscious biases and support the LGBTQ+ community

Today marks The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The reason it’s marked on May 17th is because that was the day – only back in 1990 – when the World Health Organisation decided to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. In 2022 it’s shocking to imagine that people’s sexual orientation were ever deemed a mental illness and in such relatively modern history.

LGBTQ+ community

Let’s all be brave this International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia day © Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

That doesn’t mean that we’ve reached a perfect place when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community and their acceptance within society. We still have a long way to go – but we’re at least on the right path. And it’s a path that requires bravery.

I personally feel very fortunate that I come from a family of brave women. My mother went against the norm back in the 1970s and decided not to travel back to the US to give birth to me. She stayed in Spain. It was considered a ‘brave’ choice then and is something that makes me very proud of her. That bravery has been passed down to me in my desire to work towards a better, more equitable world and also down through to my daughter. She has had the bravery to come out as pansexual – having researched online for herself what makes sense to her.  She has educated me about these different facets of sexuality; explaining that pansexuality means that she can be attracted to anyone – regardless of their gender or sexuality. 

 LGBTQ+ rights

Even in Western countries there can still be a residual unconscious bias towards people who step outside the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality © Photo by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

It also makes me painfully aware that not everyone is as fortunate as my daughter and our family. Not everyone is in a position to be open about who they truly are. Even in Western countries there can still be a residual unconscious bias towards people who step outside the ‘norm’ of heterosexuality – with many in the LGBTQ+ community fearing physical violence against themselves.

And that is why it’s so important to be aware of one’s own biases. I’d recommend that everyone check out Harvard University’s Implicit Bias Project. In their own words, “The mission of Project Implicit is to educate the public about bias and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet.” It’s a great way for teachers, students, employers etc to check for their own blind spots in order to interact with others in a more equitable way.

Let’s all be brave this International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia day and face up to our unconscious biases and support those around us may need it. 

System Two Thinking For Mental Health Month

System Two Thinking For Mental Health Month

“The easiest way to increase happiness is to control your use of time. Can you find more time to do the things you enjoy doing?” 

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner and author of the fantastic ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘ asks an interesting question that we could all value from pondering during this Mental Health Month of May. In a fast-paced modern world, it often takes superhuman effort to slow down and smell the roses. 

Mental health matters

Mental Health Matters – We need to be in a good place ourselves to be able to support others. © Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash

System Two Thinking And Mental Health

And slowing down to appreciate life is a great way to improve your sense of wellbeing but also slowing down your way of thinking can reap rewards in myriad ways too. In Kahneman’s same book, he discusses the benefits of System Two thinking – slowing down, working the brain harder, making conscious and deliberate decisions rather than jumping to conclusions which is the hallmark of System One thinking. 

System Two thinking is put into gear when working on difficult math problems or learning a new language or instrument. It’s also what we use when in a new environment and meeting new people. Conversely, fast-paced System One thinking is automatic and effortless – it loves to jump to conclusion based on shortcuts, based on what it thinks it knows. This is when it becomes easy to fall into the trap of using stereotypes to interpret what is around us.

Adapting To New Cultures

Which is why working on diversity and inclusion when moving between cultures and countries is so crucial. By being aware of the two types of thinking, of checking ourselves for automatic stereotypes, we have a much better chance of adapting into new environments and, at the same time, protecting our mental health. This is especially important for study abroad students who need to be prepared with coping mechanisms for the transition shock they are bound to experience in a new culture. (See The Cultural Transitions Model: Moving beyond Culture Shock to Enhance Student Learning Abroad by Paige E. Butler) 

Paige E. Butler Ed.D. and Janice Abarbanel PhD

The 2018 panel I shared with Paige E. Butler Ed.D. and Janice Abarbanel PhD

I spoke on a panel with Paige E. Butler Ed.D. and Janice Abarbanel PhD in 2018 about this very subject, entitled ‘Challenging the Culture Shock Paradigm: Preparing Students to Effectively Navigate Cultural Transitions’. We went through mental health stigmas and stereotypes and highlighted the importance of building resilience in young people. And a great way to do with is to ignite curiosity in their brains. Learning more about other people and other cultures is a fantastic way of transitioning into a new environment and something we can all foster when in new situations. 

Ask For Help

And not just in new situations. Research has shown that curiosity is often associated with higher levels of positive emotions, with lower levels of anxiety, with more satisfaction in life and with greater psychological well-being. But obviously everyone has different situations and needs and sometimes reaching out to mental health professionals is the only way to overcome a problem. 

On which note, I’d like to thank all those who work in mental health. Their incredible support during dark days is immeasurable. Bearing in mind that stress due to cultural differences as well as issues around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging can also lead to mental problems that require trained medical help and we can see how far-reaching such help can be. We should all make sure to seek help when needed. And using System Two thinking and sparking curiosity in daily life are also two other tips I want to pass on this Mental Health Month. We need to be in a good place ourselves to be able to support others. Don’t take your mental health for granted!