Trudi Penkler – adaptation counselling in Grenoble. Part I

Trudi Penkler

Trudi Penkler is a psychologist, psychotherapist and ‘Intercultural Consultant’ with her own practice, Active Adaptation Counselling, in Grenoble. In the first of a two-part interview, she talks to Grenoble Life about helping foreigners adapt to life in a new culture, going professional in France, and being a Ghostbuster!

Grenoble Life: What is an Intercultural Consultant?

Trudi Penkler: Our professions, education and social interactions are becoming more and more ‘globalised’. We can be based ‘at home’ but work with teams and organisations all over the world. We can also find ourselves living, learning and working in different cultural environments from the ones we’ve spent most of our lives in, sometimes for a short while, sometimes longer. This can mean trying to ‘belong’ in more than one place, or having children who do.

Intercultural consulting aims to provide information, awareness and skills, to help people be more effective in their work, pursue their research or studies comfortably and manage the demands of their daily lives with competence, in unfamiliar cultural contexts.

Active Adaptation Counselling was founded to serve this objective in 1998.  My work is about finding and emphasizing what works well in intercultural or multicultural situations, not what doesn’t. It’s about focusing on commonalities and strengths rather than differences and weaknesses. It’s about building bridges across the ravines that we imagine separate us from each other in terms of communication, understanding and interacting constructively. The experience of relocating across unfamiliar cultures myself provided the opportunity of looking closely into how to deal with diversity and developing expertise in this field, while continuing to practise as the psychologist and psychotherapist I was to begin with. 

Perhaps the best description of what I do was given to me by a young man of twelve who had come to see me, struggling to accept and settle into a new school system that at first seemed most alien to him and who was finally feeling more at ease … “You know what you are?” he said “you’re a ghostbuster.” I decided to keep the title!

GL: Tell us a little about your background

Trudi: Born in South Africa of parents and grandparents who were also born there, I never imagined living anywhere else. During the worst of the Apartheid years however, conditions became increasingly unbearable. It was inconceivable then, that Nelson Mandela would ever become the first president democratically elected by all the people of that country. ‘Broadening our horizons’ and trying to make our lives ‘elsewhere’ as parents of a young family, was a choice we felt constrained to make. Discovering a new culture and language were high on the ‘pro’ list when choosing to come to France. These were indeed to become great advantages, but naively we could not have imagined how hard won they would be!

Before coming to Grenoble, I had studied to work in both nursing and teaching biology, but a natural ability to deal well with crisis situations and to identify and redirect negative thinking and behaviour patterns towards more constructive ones, motivated more specific qualification in psychology, guidance and counselling. Experience in emergency situations with the South African Red Cross and responsibility for adolescent counselling in schools reinforced this choice.

GL: Why did you decide to develop a counselling service focusing on families moving to a new culture?

Trudi: The English speaking community was a lot smaller when I first came to Grenoble in 1986. Was it really more than two decades ago now?! Very little at the time, apart from house-hunting services and French lessons, was being provided by the companies and organisations that were relocating their employees, or students, even political refugees to the area. Interacting with other expatriates, I began to observe that wherever we’d come from, whatever the reasons for us being here, there seemed to be a pattern of common challenges and ways of coping with these – or not. It appeared that while some individuals embraced diversity and change easily, flourishing in a new cultural context and dealing well with situations and experiences very different from what they had known before, others managed less comfortably, sometimes very much less so.

What began as random observation and informal, voluntary help where appropriate, led to an avid interest in intercultural adaptation mechanisms, a need to understand these better and to establish the environment within which to contribute professionally. I spent a number of years reading and researching the thinking and behaviour patterns involved in cross-cultural adaptation, as well as studying the methodologies in cultural awareness training before beginning to work in this field.

GL: What challenges did you face in transferring your professional skills to France and set up your own practice here?

Trudi: Deciding to do something in France is one thing. Identifying the appropriate administrative processes and getting the paperwork right is another! Until I learned that “Non Madame, ce n’est pas possible,” were merely the opening words to further discussion, I would return defeated from the various offices that apply the regulations that govern self employment (trying to register my professional activity) or from the university (trying to obtain recognition of my qualifications).

Often when we’ve come from elsewhere, what we are trying to do in France doesn’t fit into any of the ‘boxes’ on the forms to fill in and much time is wasted in finding an alternative or solution. There is a cultural phenomenon that can work in one’s favour though and this is that unlike in our ‘bottom line’ Anglo Saxon cultures, negotiation can be a possibility, as long as one accepts the status quo to begin with and then looks at ways around obstacles from there.

Beginning almost as a ‘freelance consultant’, then establishing a practice and a small company concurrently, required carefully familiarising oneself with the details of ‘how things work’ officially, especially as in my case there are two distinct categories of services provided – i.e., Consulting in professional contexts as well as psychotherapy and counselling.

Balancing overhead costs and incoming revenue when we first start building up a client base can be daunting. I had the good fortune of sharing offices for financial reasons at first, with four wonderful French therapists, two of whom worked part-time for the government in judicial and social placement cases and also independently as therapists. Their input in terms of ideas, information and support was invaluable.

GL: What services do you offer?

Trudi: Although the services provided by Active Adaptation Counselling are two-fold – i.e., consulting in professional environments and personal counselling or therapy – the premise underlying both, is that active intervention can improve or repair our experience of a situation or event.

Intercultural consulting can involve any of the following: individual, management and team coaching; mediation and facilitation, which can be motivational, goal-directed or problem-solving; cultural awareness training programmes; workshops and lectures or presentations on specific topics or themes; independent screening for potential relocation; expatriation preparation, not only for those coming to France, but also for French expatriates moving elsewhere; preview visit interviews and ‘welcome’ talks; performance review and interview preparation; and repatriation or reintegration preparation for returnees.

Psychotherapy and counselling is provided for adults, adolescents and children, for couples and families. Problems and difficulties are addressed, but also aspirations and self development. What happens to us, as well as how we think and do things, all have an effect on how we personally experience of our lives, our work and our relationships. Psychotherapy and counselling can be useful when we are experiencing stress, emotional difficulties, psychological obstacles to learning, relationship problems, difficulties in adaptation to change, substance dependency, crisis situations, grief, difficulties in coping with physical difficulties or illness, post traumatic incident syndrome or simply when we need tools for going forward positively or improving a process rather than being stuck.

Lastly, my experience in the medical field has made it possible to provide medical interpreting services – i.e. the presence of an interpreter and counsellor during medical visits or hospitalisation.

GL: You work with international companies in the region – why do they approach you?

Trudi: Three main scenarios lead to requests for consulting to companies: Firstly, when intercultural awareness is important for individuals or teams working in multicultural or geographically diverse contexts and coaching, training programmes or workshops are required.

The second is when communication or motivation in multicultural teams needs to be stimulated and again, coaching services or workshops would be useful.

Thirdly, when cultural misunderstandings have led to errors in judgement or paralysis of a situation and external mediation or facilitation would get things moving forward again.

Smooth carrying forward of objectives can be hampered at various levels of management, by miscommunication or simple lack of awareness. This potentially becomes all the more complicated in diverse teams whose cultural filters are not all based in the same values and traditions. When we take the time to identify and focus on commonalities and the strengths to be drawn from diversity rather than differences and weaknesses – the most gridlocked of situations can gain momentum again.

Rarely, help can be required to defuse or get through a crisis situation, either the personal situation of an employee or group becoming critical in the workplace, or an external incident like a business travel accident, or hostage taking, which would require emergency support in handling the situation itself and for the employee’s family if necessary.

GL: What do your therapy sessions typically involve? (i.e., do you work with families, or in one-to-one sessions?)

Trudi: We find it appropriate to take responsibility for our own physical health. My sessions are about taking responsibility for our mental and emotional health too. Every case is different. Although most counselling is individual and face-to-face, couple, family or group counselling is often appropriate and constructive. Telephone counselling is also common for those living further afield and I’ve come to use this more often since consulting regularly by telephone for a company in America supporting French expatriates living there.

When the step of seeking help is taken, it is because something in our lives is not serving us well. As my clients often have to continue functioning effectively and in a ‘foreign’ environment to boot, my aim is always to actively begin the process of movement, from the present situation towards a more positively perceived one. When we look at our responses to others, to what happens to us, even to our own thoughts and fears, we also start reclaiming responsibility for ourselves and our own wellbeing, whatever the situation.

Endless digging about in the past without a clear intention or purpose does not make sense to me. Understanding where a difficulty may have its source is certainly important, but identifying and acting on what can be done about it from there, allows us to start leaving behind the ‘victim status’ we may be stuck in and become central actors in our own life stories again. This is what I help people do, through a structured method, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I hold up a mirror of what I have gathered from what is expressed. This brings a life situation into perspective or provides a different angle of seeing things, which can affirm and reassure, provoke reaction or even motivate change.

Therapy is always an interactive process. It is not a random one however and requires structure and direction. Although Jungian and existentialist at heart, I draw on both CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and NLP – Neuro-linguistic Programming methods.

It is essential to me that those who work with me, leave every session more fortified and have access to the strategies and tools we’ve explored together, that will help them to be able to cope better, even if only a little each time, with the demands their lives are making on them.

GL: Are there cases where you find you cannot help?

Trudi: There are severe pathologies and difficulties, that I would be neither qualified nor capable of taking on and in these cases I would suggest referral to medical professionals who would be better suited to the problem, accompanying the client all the way if necessary though.

In recent years, more English-speaking medical and paramedical professionals have set up in Grenoble and I have instigated an English Speaking Therapy Forum so that we are in contact with each other, share information and are better able to serve the needs of the community. The WWNG (Working Women’s Network of Grenoble) has also been most important in facilitating the exchange of information so that professionals in the field get to know about each other, what is available and how to find it.

In part II, coming soon, Trudi will be talking about the difficulties familes can face when moving to a new culture and offering some advice on how to manage this adaptation.