Have you ever played the game where you sit in a circle and one person whispers a story to the person on their left, who shares the story with the next person, and so on, until the story is retold to the one who started it—but it no longer resembles the original story? That is similar to many of the problems we face communicating across cultures.
The world is indeed getting flatter. Like many organizations, at The Ken Blanchard Companies we regularly interact with coworkers and clients around the globe. In my workshops, cross-cultural communication is frequently cited as a significant challenge for leaders who have teams spread throughout the world.
Communication involves an exchange of meaning through sending and receiving of verbal and nonverbal messages, either consciously or unconsciously. For a message to be understood correctly, there needs to be a vast amount of common ground between the sender and receiver. This makes cross-cultural communication difficult, because two culturally different individuals tend to have less in common than two people who are part of the same culture.
Many variable factors get in the way of mutual understanding within cross-cultural communication—differences in language, in communication styles, and in the interpretation of nonverbal behaviors. Within each of these differences are numerous subcategories that add further difficulty.
However, effective cross-cultural communication is possible. I suggest four approaches to increase understanding:
- Start with the assumption that you may not understand the situation or message and that cultural differences may get in the way.
- The most accurate way to gather information is to observe and describe what is actually said and done, not to evaluate or interpret words or actions. Evaluation and interpretation are influenced by each person’s own culture and background.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, boots, or sandals. Try to see the situation from the other person’s cultural perspective.
- Treat your explanation or interpretation as a best guess. Then, when you think you understand, check with the other person to see whether you’re on the right path or whether you need additional clarity.
What other suggestions do you have to increase understanding in cross-cultural communication?
About the author:
John Hester is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies who specializes in performance and self-leadership. You can read John’s posts on the second Thursday of each month.