Communicating Across Cultures: 4 Approaches to Increase Understanding

Vintage Business People Talking On Can TelephoneHave 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:

  1. Start with the assumption that you may not understand the situation or message and that cultural differences may get in the way.
  2. 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.
  3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, boots, or sandals. Try to see the situation from the other person’s cultural perspective.
  4. 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.

6 thoughts on “Communicating Across Cultures: 4 Approaches to Increase Understanding

  1. Excellent advice! Simple yet, not so easy to accomplish. Sounds to me, the bottom line is to humble ourselves.
    I’m passing this on to my son who is preparing to graduate from UC Berkeley.
    He has had and will continue to have many cross cultural experiences.

    • Hi Carolyn. I like your simple summary — the bottom line is to be humble and teachable. For your son, I would imagine that UC Berkeley is very diverse and cross-cultural are critical to any success… Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi John,
    In my experience on cross cultural (global teams) it’s not the individual differences that block team productivity, it’s when the team members rigidly hold to their positions. Sometimes this is about native culture, but most often it is about behaviors and feelings. The behaviors are: inclusion, control and openness, and underlying these are significance, competence, and likability. When you put these into an individual context you get how the team member feels about him or herself. Up the self-esteem and you up communication and team performance.
    Your post very helpful for all of us to examine our styles and become aware of what we might be triggering in others when we advocate our positions.

    • Hi Rob. I agree that its individual differences that can block team productivity. Some of those individual differences are cultural. I believe the four approaches work to improve understanding no matter what the differences, but are especially important in cross-cultural settings.

  3. Hi John. Great recommendations for improving cross-cultural communication! I agree that the challenges of communicating successfully across cultures will only increase if we don’t find an effective way to teach and coach leaders in cross-cultural communication proficiency. In my coaching practice, we call this developing cross-cultural fluency, and we find that it not only increases a leader’s ability to communicate well across cutlrures but also significantly increases a leader’s awareness of his/her own cultural norms and biases.

  4. I will start of with a definition of multiculturalism. According to Johannesen, Valde, and Whedebee (2008), “Multiculturalism involves an understanding, appreciation, and valuing of one’s own culture, and an informed respect and curiosity about the ethnic cultures of others. It involves a valuing of other cultures, not in the sense of approving all aspects of those cultures, but of attempting to see how a given culture can express value to its own members”(p.228).
    Communicating ethically in multicultural communication requires some knowledge of the others background and culture. Having a better understanding of the person you are communication with will help evolve the relationship to a strong one. Encouraging interaction will also better the relationship.
    One of the key guidelines for multicultural communication and all forms of communication is to show respect. One should show the same respect that they would expect to receive in the relationship. This kind of spills over in to the Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto to. Respect is an important ingredient to any communication and relationship.

    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in Human Communication. Long Grove: Wabeland Press, Inc.

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