Regardless of who they are communicating with, or in what situation, the best intercultural communicators have a heartfelt desire to build a bridge to their listeners. That is, they are always open to meeting the concerns of others. This is a habit with an emotional element that crosses cultures. Perhaps you already know how to build such bridges. But if you don’t, the good news is that you too can cultivate intercultural heart.
In my work with clients I have repeatedly observed that our cultures, as well as our personal pasts, condition us to be more or less either self-oriented or other-oriented. This conditioning becomes part of our communication style, although we are not aware of it. That is what I call a communication blind spot, which often lies behind the friction I observe when different cultures work together. You can’t change your cultural conditioning or your personal past, but you can practice adapting your unique communication style when communicating with those from other cultures.
For example, I recently worked with a financial manager who was having communication problems with some members of his intercultural team. Together we identified several situations in which he needed to adapt how he communicated, which helped him become aware that he was very other-directed. He was always asking himself questions about the concerns of those he managed. What motivated them and what didn’t? Did they need more of a challenge or were they overwhelmed? Were they feeling bored, dissatisfied or fearful? And so on. He had developed the habit of speculating about their concerns and then offering to help. The problem he encountered was that while that approach worked well with people from some cultures, he noticed that others in his department found it intrusive. His questions made them uncomfortable and they didn’t want to have such conversations with him.
I will give you another example, this time of a quality control manager who through working with me became aware of how self-oriented he was. Because of this self-orientation, he had taken for granted that members of his department would ask for help if they had concerns. As a result, colleagues from cultures that shared his communication style trusted him. However, those who did not have the habit of requesting help reported that they found him difficult to work with. I showed him how to make it clear to everyone in his department that he valued their independence. He also explained to them that if he did not ask about their concerns, this did not mean that he was unwilling to hear them. He encouraged them to feel free to tell him what they needed and that he would help in any way he could.
I have provided these two contrasting examples to show that there is no one right way to express intercultural heart. It is an attitude, not a personality trait or technique. However, one concrete thing to practice changing is to be more direct and explicit than you are now. Explicit communication is not as essential in your own culture because there are shared standards and similar cultural communication styles, which lead to an understanding that goes beyond the words. However, within intercultural contexts, words are all that you can count on to clearly transmit a message. In the case of intercultural heart, saying clearly, directly and explicitly that you are open to other people’s concerns is the only sure way others will know that about you.
Obviously, everyone accepts that not all of their concerns can be met within a business context. But most of us appreciate working with someone who seems sincerely dedicated to meeting at least some of our concerns. To be an effective intercultural communicator you can’t have a blind spot about the fact that human beings have a wide variety of concerns. As with speech acts, which are common to all languages, human concerns are universal. Cultivating intercultural heart means not only knowing that but also communicating it.