Sherwood Fleming's Intercultural Communication Insights http://sherwoodfleming.com Sat, 23 Apr 2016 11:19:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Intercultural Blamestorming: Take the Blame Out of Communicating Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/intercultural-blamestorming-take-the-blame-out-of-communicating-across-cultures/ Sun, 21 Feb 2016 15:14:39 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3551 I have worked in the human communication field for twenty-five years, the majority of them in helping my clients in France expand their abilities to communicate across cultures. What I have observed over the decades is that both within the same culture or across cultures, when communication goes wrong there is a tendency to engage in blamestorming. In other words,...read more →

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I have worked in the human communication field for twenty-five years, the majority of them in helping my clients in France expand their abilities to communicate across cultures. What I have observed over the decades is that both within the same culture or across cultures, when communication goes wrong there is a tendency to engage in blamestorming. In other words, when deadlines are not met, or work has to be redone, or there is conflict and loss of trust, the first reaction is often to blame someone.

Generally, we tend to blame the listener. If only the person had listened well enough, there would not now be a problem. Sometimes we assume that it’s the speaker’s fault. If only he or she had been clearer the problem would not have arisen. And sometimes we are willing to share the blame – in this case both the speaker and listener are willing to take responsibility for faulty communication. But what if no one is to blame? What if language is not the precise medium we believe it to be?

Language is Always an Approximation

Language is a tool for coordinating action with others but it is never foolproof. There are always pitfalls of one kind or another, even in our own language and culture. Add to that working in a foreign language that we are less proficient in with countless different cultures and you exponentially augment the chances for miscommunication.

I have written elsewhere that cultures speak through us and we listen with intercultural ears. How can you blame someone for listening in a way that they learned in their own culture? How can you blame someone for saying something that it is inappropriate in your own culture, while in the other person’s culture it may be perfectly appropriate?

Beyond that, it’s not just the content of what was said that we blame. Sometimes it’s also the tone in which it was said or the body language that accompanied it. This is even more perilous territory. If we interpret a person’s tone of voice and body language as being aggressive or insincere, we will blame them for that. We will be convinced, without any real evidence, that we interpreted the tone and body language correctly. But of course If the person is from another culture, it’s better to assume that you have no way of interpreting tone and body language correctly.

Blamestorming Wastes Time and Takes an Emotional Toll

All these ways of speaking, listening, interpreting and ultimately blaming happen without us even being fully aware of them. Our lack of awareness doesn’t only result in miscommunication, it also results in frustration, anger, mistrust, demotivation and other negative emotions. We pretend that emotion isn’t a part of the business world but as humans we don’t really have a choice in the matter. Language and emotion go hand in hand. So what, if anything, can we do about this perilous terrain of human communication?

In the articles on this website, and in my work with clients who work across cultures, I show how to become aware of these predictable pitfalls. I also provide reliable ways to avoid or remedy them when they occur.

The first step is always to become masterful in the universal language.  The building blocks of human communication — speech acts — are extremely simple to use but we need to become more vigilant to be complete and clear when employing them, especially when working across cultures. Beyond that, we all tend to complicate these fundamental tools with layers of cultural conditioning about the “right” way to make requests, offers, promises and declarations, and to express opinions. The second step is to realize that the complex range of appropriate tone and body language that each of us learns in our own cultures can be safely ignored.

Once you are able to do those two things repeatedly, you will be able to take the blame out of communicating across cultures. You’ll find it more satisfying to focus on coordinating action for the future via language in the present than to waste time assigning blame for flawed communication in the past — brainstorming instead of blamestorming.

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The Top Two Mistakes to Avoid When Making Requests Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/the-top-two-mistakes-to-avoid-when-making-requests-across-cultures/ Sun, 27 Sep 2015 14:33:32 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3527 How many times a day do we ask for what we want or need from those who can provide what we requested? We don’t keep track of the number of requests a day we make to colleagues, either in person, by email, on the phone, during meetings and video conferences and whether in the same office, country or across the...read more →

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How many times a day do we ask for what we want or need from those who can provide what we requested? We don’t keep track of the number of requests a day we make to colleagues, either in person, by email, on the phone, during meetings and video conferences and whether in the same office, country or across the world.

We tend to describe all these acts as sending emails, making phone calls or having meetings or video conferences. But in saying that we hide the true purpose of all these ways of communicating with each other — the need to coordinate action effectively. The most important speech act for coordinating action is the request speech act. As I have written elsewhere, this is the speech act common to all languages.

Despite this, members of every culture have their own particular way of making a request, of responding to a request and of fulfilling a request. Unfortunately, few people are aware to what degree they have been conditioned by their cultures about the “right” way to make a request, to respond to a request and to fulfill a request. As a result, within an intercultural business context we often make mistakes, both in how we make requests and in how we listen to them. In what follows I’ll show you how to avoid the top two mistakes when making requests across cultures: making unclear and incomplete requests.

 Making Unclear Requests

Those making a request are typically clear about their intent — although not always. Apple founder Steve Jobs was apparently fond of saying to his engineers, regarding the perfect expression of a new product idea of his, that “I’ll know it when I see it.” That’s the best example I know of an unclear request. I wonder how much time, money and resources were expended, and the amount of frustration that resulted, as Jobs’ engineers tried desperately to fulfill his deliberately unclear request.

Perhaps when you have unquestioned authority and virtually unlimited financial resources you can afford to make unclear requests and accept the resulting frustration for all concerned as part of the human cost of doing business. However, if you are working with managers or colleagues who are unclear in their requests, and lack the track record of Jobs, I’m sure that you can relate to the high price of frustration that you are paying on a daily basis.

To minimize this frustration I recommend that when you make requests, especially across cultures, you first become clear about exactly what you want. Then assume that your listener will not be as clear about what you want as you are. By starting with that basic assumption you will be more motivated to do what it takes to avoid making the second mistake: making incomplete requests.

 Making Incomplete Requests

What is a complete request? When I ask my seminar participants that question it takes them some reflection to come up with an answer. Then as we spend time discussing this and deconstructing a typical request, they realize just how much there is to know about making complete requests and how important they are for improving the coordination of action across cultures.

Unfortunately, most of us assume that we know everything there is to know about making requests. And yet there are all sorts of things missing in the way most people make their requests. Fortunately, listeners often fill in the gaps but you can’t count on that, since sometimes the listener fills in the gaps correctly but often not. The proof?

Just think about how often deliveries are late, quality isn’t what we expected or we have to get things redone, sometimes several times before we are satisfied. Then we tend to blame other people or cultures, or complain about the decrease in the quality of work or the decline in the “work ethic.” When things go wrong we fail to ask ourselve — and others — a simpler, more fundamental question: Was the request complete? And the even more important question: “How can I learn to make more-complete requests to minimize these recurring problems?” The solution is in language, more than we realize.

What Aren’t You Saying?

For example, a typical request that you might hear these days would sound something like this: “Send me the report ASAP.” The acronym for “as soon as possible” has become a universal way of speaking about time. Unfortunately, it means something different for everyone and especially for those in different cultures. For the person receiving the request it can be interpreted as anything from right away until a week from now or beyond. If you expect it today and you say ASAP, can you really blame the listener for not getting it to you today? If you say by 3 PM today and it arrives tomorrow, then you have grounds for complaint. Otherwise, you can’t blame anyone but yourself for failing to be clear.

And what report does the request refer to? If there is only one report, then everyone knows which report it is? If that’s true then I agree that the request is complete enough. However, why not say “the year-end report”? That’s more complete.

Who is responsible for the report? The person who you are writing to? Or do they need to get it from someone else? “The year-end report that Clarkson is finishing for you” is even more complete.

Do you want it emailed? Mailed? Faxed? By courier? Most documents are exchanged by by email. But “Email me the year-end report that Clarkson is finishing for you by 3 PM today” is getting closer to a complete request.

How do you want it? In a PowerPoint, Word or PDF file? Again, maybe there is a standard format that everyone has agreed upon but there is no harm in adding “in a print-ready PDF format” to your request, if that’s appropriate.

Going even further, do you expect the document to be formatted in a particular way? If you do, then the more precise details you provide, the greater the chance that you will get exactly what you want.

Changing the Incomplete Request Habit

I admit that in such a simple example as given above, adding all the details can seem like overkill. But the point of the example is to demonstrate a habit that I see over and over again with my clients. They, and the people they work with, make endless incomplete requests. This results in complaining about requests not being fully met. Sometimes the problem isn’t in the people or in their actions but in language. Enhance the communication and the results will inevitably improve.

I began by saying that requests are the most important speech act for coordinating action. Therefore, it’s vital that requests be as clear and complete as possible. If you are not building the habit of consistently making clear and complete requests, then you are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

An added benefit to you is that once you become consistent at making complete requests, you will also be better at filling in the gaps of other people’s incomplete requests. Before saying yes to someone’s request you can ask a series of questions. When exactly do you want it? I’m not sure what you mean by ASAP, is tomorrow by 2 PM soon enough? I assume you want me to email it to you but I just want to verify that. I have a Word version of that report but would you prefer I convert it to a PDF? Is there any style or formatting you prefer? If so, I’d be happy to reformat it. And so on. So the added benefit is that learning to make clear and complete requests will also improve your listening.

By practicing daily on small and simple requests, both when speaking and listening, you will be building the skills you need for handling more complex requests that can have a huge impact on you and on others.

This kind of clarification process is particularly important across cultures because how we do things, what time frames we consider normal, and what our standards of quality are, vary immensely from culture to culture. Most of us assume that as long as we are speaking a common language, or working for the same company, then such clarification is unnecessary. That’s a flawed assumption.

 Resistance to Making Clear Requests

While all of what I’ve said so far may sound logical to you, perhaps you find yourself resisting the need to be so detailed in how you make requests. I sometimes see that resistance in my clients. Why resist making complete requests? The top three reasons I hear are:

“It’s clear enough. I don’t have to say all that.” If that’s also your opinion, go back to mistake number one, Making Unclear Requests. Yes, it is clear to you but never assume that it is clear to the other person.

“It saves time to provide fewer details.” I can’t argue with the desire to save time but if the report doesn’t arrive, how much time do you waste by being annoyed about it and taking extra time to send another email? And how many times will you have to ask people to redo things you already requested because you failed to be clear enough about your exact expectations? And how will that make them feel about you? It actually saves plenty of time, as well as relationship wear and tear in the long run, to make complete requests. I guarantee it.

“I don’t want to insult the other person’s intelligence by providing such obvious details.” I have to admit that this one baffles me. Why is it an insult to your listener’s intelligence to make a complete request? I consider it a service to the listener to make as complete a request as possible. You are making it easier to fulfill your request, as well as easier to counter offer or decline your request. When the listener doesn’t know exactly what you want, and tries to comply anyway, how do they really know what they are promising to do?

And if you are still concerned about how a complete request will be perceived, you can always add something like, “I know that I’m including a lot of details in this request that perhaps you already know but I just want to make sure that I’m being as clear as possible.” I would rather have someone be annoyed with me for giving too many details than annoyed because I ask them to do redo something because my initial request was incomplete.

Are there other reasons you don’t want to make clear requests? If there are, I recommend that you challenge your reasoning, stop resisting and start practicing. Not only will you get better at coordinating action with others but you will build improved working relationships.

When requests are consistently clear and complete then coordination of action is smoother. Everyone’s expectations are met, which fosters an atmosphere of mutual trust. So it doesn’t just mean more effective business communication but also increased intercultural trust.

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Communicating Clearly Across Cultures http://sherwoodfleming.com/communicating-clearly-across-cultures/ Sat, 09 May 2015 15:29:08 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3515 When clients first meet with me to improve their ability to communicate with colleagues and clients from other cultures, clarity is not usually at the top of their wish list. Why? Because it’s rarely at the top of anyone’s list, even those communicating within their own culture. You find that hard to believe? Well, when was the last time you...read more →

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When clients first meet with me to improve their ability to communicate with colleagues and clients from other cultures, clarity is not usually at the top of their wish list. Why? Because it’s rarely at the top of anyone’s list, even those communicating within their own culture. You find that hard to believe? Well, when was the last time you asked yourself if what you were saying or writing was clear enough?

Instead, most people ask themselves such questions as, “Is this the right word?” Or, “Have I provided enough details?” Maybe even, “Have I explained things thoroughly enough?” Those kinds of questions actually lead in the opposite direction of clarity. Clarity isn’t expressed by the choice of a particular word or phrase. Too many details actually confuse listeners and readers, resulting in a reduction of clarity. And explaining is not an effective approach to communication, unless you are in the process of teaching someone to do a particular task.

In addition to asking ourselves incorrect questions, all of us have developed communication habits over a lifetime of which we are not even aware. That’s not a bad thing — it’s simply your unique communication style.

Your unique communication style simply developed over time, without much conscious choice on your part. Unless you chose at some point to learn a particular method of communication and followed a particular system, you are communicating on autopilot. What I mean by that is, you are speaking and writing spontaneously and assuming that’s all you need to communicate effectively. Sound familiar?

We approach communicating across cultures in the same way. This is especially true when we need to use a foreign language, typically English. We speak spontaneously and assume that’s all we need to do. And indeed, this approach often works well enough. Emails get written. Phone calls get made. Things get done. So no need to improve how you communicate, right? Wrong.

On the surface it may look like effective communication is taking place. However, what I hear daily from my clients and seminar participants tells a different story. They often express a lack of confidence whether how they are writing emails, conducting one-on-one or group meetings and giving presentations is indeed effective enough. Beyond these personal concerns, there are issues of lack of trust and missed deadlines due to ineffective coordination of action or broken promises.

They also report stress, conflict, confusion, anger, lack of motivation, dissatisfaction and even a lack of cooperation with colleagues and clients. What does any of that have to do with communication? In fact, it has everything to do with communication and yet hardly anyone looks to speaking and listening for the solution. No one imagines that learning new ways of communicating can not only result in more effective coordination of action but also increased personal satisfaction and greater mutual trust.

We simply don’t recognize that many of the problems we encounter in our daily work, in both our own cultures and internationally, can be solved by paying attention to speaking and listening. When you think about, it’s obvious that everything in business uses language, whether spoken or written. So if you are not taking any responsibility for communicating clearly across cultures, then you are part of the problem and not part of the solution.

8 Ways to Get Started

I regularly add articles and actions to help you become a clearer and more confident intercultural communicator. Here are some to get you started today:

  1. Learn the universal language.
  1. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
  1. Actively build intercultural trust.
  1. Learn how to prepare intercultural presentations.
  1. Ignore tone and body language and focus on content.
  1. Learn the 5-Step Clear Method for expressing opinions more clearly across cultures.
  1. Read my Dance of Opinions eBook that shows you how to implement the CLEAR Method. You can download a sample chapter or buy the eBook here.
  1. Work with me. I offer one-on-one intercultural communication training in person or by Skype. If you are interested in finding out more, please send me a request for more information via my site contact form.

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Do You Need Intercultural Communication Training? http://sherwoodfleming.com/need-intercultural-training/ Sun, 08 Feb 2015 15:31:17 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3482 There are a variety of approaches and methods available for how to enhance your abilities to work within intercultural business contexts. Some methods, such as Geert Hofstede’s six dimensions of national cultures, have been around for decades. His approach has certainly played an influential role in international management practices. Other approaches, such as that of Edward T. Hall, take an...read more →

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There are a variety of approaches and methods available for how to enhance your abilities to work within intercultural business contexts. Some methods, such as Geert Hofstede’s six dimensions of national cultures, have been around for decades. His approach has certainly played an influential role in international management practices.

Other approaches, such as that of Edward T. Hall, take an anthropological view of cultures. Hall’s books have served as the foundation on which many intercultural methodologies have been built.

Cultural Detective, founded by Dianne Hofner Saphiere, is an example of a training firm with a global presence. It provides products and services that offer a “values based approach that enhances collaboration and effectiveness in any professional function.”

A contrasting approach is proposed by Andy Molinsky in Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process. He is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business School and has a background in psychology.

Why assume that intercultural issues will take care of themselves without training?

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As the subtitle indicates, the core of Molinsky’s book responds to the question of whether you can adapt interculturally without “losing yourself.” However, he doesn’t just answer that question conceptually. Instead, he equips the reader with clearly defined dimensions for how to adapt one’s communication style: directness, enthusiasm, formality, assertiveness, self-promotion and personal disclosure. Then he provides a detailed, step-by-step process to analyze their own and other people’s ways of expressing themselves in each of those six dimensions. The objective is to not abandon one’s personal and cultural style entirely but rather to adapt enough that you communicate appropriately while still remaining true to yourself. He concludes by answering his own question in the affirmative: “As the cases throughout this book have demonstrated, you can indeed be yourself and be effective at the same time.”

Regardless of the approach that Molinsky or other cultural communication experts propose, in the end the objective is the same for all of us: working more effectively and harmoniously with people from different cultures. Unfortunately, that objective is rarely at the top of the list when it comes to training within international companies. There is more of a trend to offer employees language training, management training or skills-based training. While all of those can be beneficial, they fail to address the unique challenges presented when working within intercultural contexts. Why is it assumed that intercultural issues will take care of themselves without any targeted training whatsoever?

Ongoing Intercultural Communication Training Should be the Norm

Ideally, ongoing intercultural training, from a variety of different methods and models, would be the norm within international companies. A single training session once and never again is insufficient. Because something that all these methods and processes require, my own included, is adapting habitual ways of perceiving, behaving, speaking and listening. Changing those habits doesn’t happen in a day, even if you are extremely motivated to change

I am also convinced that no single method or approach provides a complete answer to the changes we all have to make continually when working across cultures. To that end, through my seminars and one-on-one training, I help my clients expand their range of speaking and listening skills so they can dance more competently and comfortably with people of different cultures.

If I could make a wish for you in 2015 and beyond, it would be that you take some intercultural training and actively practice adapting. From my perspective you have nothing to lose and much to gain both personally and professionally.

 

 

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The Top 5 Lies Told by Intercultural Teams http://sherwoodfleming.com/top-5-lies-told-intercultural-teams/ Sun, 14 Sep 2014 12:10:25 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3453 I hear many of my clients, who work within intercultural teams, tell the five lies below. I call these lies intercultural blind spots. Since you can’t change what you can’t see, it’s important to look closely at the faulty assumptions on which these lies are based. When left unexamined, these blind spots can become the root cause of problems within...read more →

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I hear many of my clients, who work within intercultural teams, tell the five lies below. I call these lies intercultural blind spots. Since you can’t change what you can’t see, it’s important to look closely at the faulty assumptions on which these lies are based. When left unexamined, these blind spots can become the root cause of problems within a team, such as ineffectiveness, decreased morale and mistrust. If you are part of an intercultural team, read on and see whether you are telling any of these lies and what you can do about it.

Lie #1: “I’m just a cog in the wheel, so my opinion won’t make any difference.”

Believing that you are just a cog in a wheel is how many of us see international business. Here’s my review of a book that challenges the cog-in-a-wheel metaphor.  I share the authors’ view of business as a conversational model. From a communication perspective, not expressing your opinion will deprive other team members of the benefit of your experience and your unique point of view. That is at the heart of Dance of Opinions, a book I wrote about expressing opinions across cultures.

Rather than asking yourself whether there’s any point expressing your opinions, ask instead if you are being as effective as you would like to be when expressing them. To increase your effectiveness, you need to learn the difference between grounded and ungrounded opinions and begin building bridges to your listeners from other cultures.

Lie #2: “We all speak English, so communicating is not a problem.”

Speaking a common language, typically English, is simply the starting point for communicating across cultures. Unfortunately, this lie is most often told by native speakers, not those using English as a second language. Just because you speak the official corporate language perfectly doesn’t mean that you don’t need to change how you speak and listen to people from other cultures.

Lie #3: “I know what others in the team think about me and frankly I don’t care.”

The truth is that everyone cares about the opinions others have of them. If others have a negative opinion about you, then you may well try all sorts of tactics to change that. What works in your own culture may not be as effective with other cultures, so you need to learn how to actively participate in building an intercultural identity.

Lie #4: “I know who trusts me and who doesn’t trust me and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Mutual trust is the foundation on which all effective teams are built. It’s much easier to build trust with people from our own culture than with those from other cultures. Furthermore, we can’t be as certain whether people from other cultures trust us or not. If you want to become more effective at evaluating and building intercultural trust, read my five-part series on this essential topic.

Lie #5: “Since I’m in my own country, those coming from other cultures need to adapt to me.”

You no longer have to leave your office to work across cultures. With so much business communication being conducted by email, phone and videoconference, other cultures are coming to you, whether your office is in Paris, London, Bangkok or Budapest. So it’s easy within that context to believe that others have to adapt to you. Easy but shortsighted.

I tell my clients that it is more effective to be the first to adapt. Why? The truth is that rarely will anyone adapt to you. So if no one is willing to adapt how they speak and listen, what are the chances of effective intercultural communication taking place? This is one of the biggest problems I see within intercultural teams, whether they work in the same office or from different locations around the world. Everyone is waiting for everyone else to adapt first. Trust me, it’s a losing formula.

Stop Lying and Start Learning

You’ll notice that the common thread in this article is to see your blind spots and then learn to take different action: expressing opinions more effectively, expanding intercultural speaking and listening skills, actively participating in building an intercultural identity, increasing intercultural trust, and being the first to adapt how you speak and listen to people from other cultures.

The benefit to you in doing all of this is that you will gradually be mastering a skill set that will serve you throughout your intercultural career. Not only will you be more effective within your current intercultural team but in others you may join in the future.

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How to Build Intercultural Trust in Just Five Minutes http://sherwoodfleming.com/build-intercultural-trust-just-five-minutes/ Sun, 31 Aug 2014 09:13:37 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3441 Doing business globally depends on trust. And it’s clear that the greater the trust, the greater the ability to conduct business effectively across cultures. My clients often tell me that one of the difficulties they encounter when conducting business internationally is that they don’t know how to quickly build trust. They wonder what they can do to build trust during...read more →

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Doing business globally depends on trust. And it’s clear that the greater the trust, the greater the ability to conduct business effectively across cultures.

My clients often tell me that one of the difficulties they encounter when conducting business internationally is that they don’t know how to quickly build trust. They wonder what they can do to build trust during a short meeting, especially when the meeting is by phone or video conference. I reassure them that regardless of the available time or nature of the interaction, I can show them proven ways to influence the degree to which others trust them. And these honestly don’t require significant time or effort to implement. Sound too good to be true?

Not if you know what to do. First, it’s important to be aware that, regardless of our cultural background, we all make quick decisions about who to trust and who not to trust. In my seminars and intercultural communication coaching sessions I show participants how to be aware of this human phenomenon. Rarely do we question these decisions. Instead, we tend to look for proof to validate our initial decision about who is and who is not trustworthy. We then typically work more effectively and comfortably with the people we trust than with the people we don’t trust.

Second, you can’t leave building trust to chance. I am absolutely convinced that it’s essential to actively participate in influencing others to trust you. Because of the quick decisions people make, you rarely get a second chance. That’s why you have to focus on immediately building trust.

You Can Build Trust Faster Than You Think

Whether you are in a face-to-face meeting or in a telephone or video conference, with one person or several, you have only one tool at your disposal — your words. If you don’t take a few minutes to convince others that you are trustworthy, who will? You don’t have to say a lot but you do have to tell them three specific things:

  • That you are sincere
  • That you are competent
  • That you are reliable

Remember, it’s your responsibility, and no one else’s, to inspire others to trust you.

 Here’s What You Do

1. To understand more completely what I am suggesting, read how to evaluate intercultural mistrust and how to inspire intercultural trust.

2. Then spend a few minutes to write two or three sentences about your sincerity, your competence and your reliability. Rewrite them until they are simple, clear and accurately represent that you are indeed sincere, competent and reliable. If English is not your native language, ask a native speaker to verify that what you are saying is easy to understand.

3. Practice saying these sentences out loud to yourself for a few days.

4. Then say these three things the next time you are communicating, either by phone or in person, with business colleagues from another culture who don’t know you well. Don’t expect a particular response or validation, or indeed a reaction of any kind. People may, of course, respond to what you say but that is not required for your communication to be effective.

Example: I’ve expressed my sincerity, competence and reliability several times in this short post. See if you can find where I did that. (Hint – second and third paragraph, and the second-to-last paragraph.) Then notice how that influences how you perceive whether I am sincere, competent and reliable.

This is the Easiest Way to Build Intercultural Trust

Of all the ways that you can build intercultural trust, I have found that this is by far the easiest. What could possibly be easier than simply telling someone that they can trust your sincerity, competence and reliability?

This doesn’t guarantee, of course, that everyone who hears what you say will automatically trust you. But I get lots of positive feedback from my clients on how well this worked for them. So I can guarantee that you will see an overall increase in trust.

Even more importantly, you’ll be learning one of the most vital skills any intercultural communicator can master: using words with a very specific and clear intention. Within intercultural contexts words are our only reliable tool for persuading others. That includes persuading them to trust us.

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Can Skype Translator Improve Intercultural Communication? http://sherwoodfleming.com/can-computers-improve-intercultural-communication/ Sat, 28 Jun 2014 09:02:58 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3407 Microsoft recently demoed Skype Translator, which will be available as a Windows 8 beta app before the end of this year. As you can see in the video from the demo, the idea is that Translator can eliminate the need to learn new languages when people from different cultures communicate with each other. While both promising and ambitious, I have...read more →

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Microsoft recently demoed Skype Translator, which will be available as a Windows 8 beta app before the end of this year. As you can see in the video from the demo, the idea is that Translator can eliminate the need to learn new languages when people from different cultures communicate with each other. While both promising and ambitious, I have to wonder about the implications of such an initiative.

For example, what impact could it have on those of us currently working in the language training and intercultural communication fields? And could devices potentially communicate more effectively than us mere mortals? So rather than old-fashioned, direct communication, we could eventually come to rely on a trusted digital intermediary.

Communicating via an intermediary is nothing new; expert interpreters have filled that role for as long as people from different cultures have wanted to communicate with one another. But it’s well known that the difficulty of such a task is that the words used by the speakers convey only part of the intended meaning. The translator must understand what was meant by the speaker’s words and then convey that particular meaning to the listener. Often the meaning lies in the intonation that was used or in the cultural context of the words.

An example I use during my seminars to demonstrate this difficulty is the common French response to a request, “On verra.” Translated literally into English it means “We’ll see.” In English if you respond to a request with “We’ll see” it is listened to as “Maybe.” In other words, there is a distinct possibility that if you ask again at some future time, “Yes” will be the answer to your request. With that interpretation, in the future you could feel confident about making the request again.

However, you have to be French, or have lived in France long enough as I have, to know what the French actually mean when they say “On verra.” In fact, this is an indirect and polite way of saying “No.” They are, in effect, declining the request. So imagine their surprise when if at some later date you make the same request (trust me, I’ve been there). Puzzled expressions ensue. They are sure they said no. You are sure they said maybe. Business people within intercultural business contexts have a lot of trouble navigating such perilous waters of communication.

So in my ideal vision, when Skype Translator encounters “On verra” it would ask the speaker this question: “Are you accepting or declining this request, or counteroffering?” In that way, it could help the speaker be clear about which parts of the request speech act are missing or unclear. As another example, after someone expresses an opinion Translator could ask: “Is that a grounded or ungrounded opinion?” That way both speaker and listener would be reminded about this key distinction, since not doing so often diminishes trust and causes unnecessary conflicts.

Until we realize that the “right” word is not where meaning resides, but rather in the human beings who are speaking and listening, we will continue to create unclear intercultural communication. So while I welcome technological progress like Skype Translator, my hope is that such technology can eventually serve the higher purpose of shattering the universal illusion that intercultural communication is actually taking place.

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Do You Have the Illusion that Intercultural Communication is Taking Place? http://sherwoodfleming.com/illusion-intercultural-communication-taking-place/ Sun, 15 Jun 2014 08:05:18 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3395 The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I will adapt his words slightly to make them applicable to intercultural communication: “The single biggest problem in intercultural communication is the illusion that communication is taking place.” Specifically, the illusion within intercultural business contexts is that when...read more →

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The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I will adapt his words slightly to make them applicable to intercultural communication: “The single biggest problem in intercultural communication is the illusion that communication is taking place.” Specifically, the illusion within intercultural business contexts is that when we are all using a common foreign language, English for example, we are communicating effectively. Do you have that illusion? If so, what’s the high price you’re paying for not facing the reality that you are not communicating as effectively as you could?

Facing the Reality that You’re Not Communicating Can Be Uncomfortable

This is often an uncomfortable realization for my clients to deal with. They say things such as, “You mean, all this time I thought I was communicating well enough but I really wasn’t?” Like many of my clients you are probably talking or writing spontaneously without any clear intention. As a result you rarely make your point clearly or concisely enough to bridge the wide gaps of different language levels and diverse cultural points of view that are present in every intercultural interaction you have, whether by phone, in person or by email.

What is the single biggest problem in intercultural communication?

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The time for achieving clarity of both your intention and your message is, of course, before speaking and writing. In general, everyone spends far too much time on the wrong things. For example, choosing the “perfect” word, or worrying about how you are being perceived due to a foreign accent or limited grammar, is not an effective use of your time. The essence of your message is not in the words or the accent or the grammar. Think of this instead as being centered in you and your professional understanding of the topic at hand, within your particular business context. Taking the time to boil down your knowledge to the essentials and deliver what is relevant to your listener or reader is clearly where you need to spend more time.

When you do take the time to do that, then you will see that communication is actually taking place. It happens best when the speaker or writer takes full responsibility for both the clarity of the message and for building a bridge to the listener or reader. Sometimes my clients object to my suggestion of taking total responsibility for communicating. “Wouldn’t fifty-fifty with the listener or reader be fairer?” they suggest. My counter argument is that if you are the one speaking or writing, why would the listener or reader take any responsibility whatsoever? What’s in it for them? It’s difficult for my clients to refute that logic. They can clearly see that there is really nothing in it for their listeners or readers to spend a nanosecond figuring out unclear communication. Humbled by that realization, their next question is, “Okay, well then what do I do?” This is what I tell them.

The Three Pieces of the Intercultural Communication Puzzle

First learn what communication is. Specifically, it’s about speech acts and a different model for effective listening.

Second, learn as much as you can about making clear and complete requests, offers, promises and declarations. You’ll need to master these fundamental tools of a universal language that crosses cultures.

Third, learn to express your opinions clearly with the sincere intention on your part to build a bridge to your listeners or readers. I have devised the CLEAR method as a way to help you do that.  I am convinced that expressing opinions clearly, concisely and confidently within intercultural business contexts is not a luxury. It is a necessity.

Create an Intercultural Communication Style

As you practice and master those three pieces of the intercultural communication puzzle you will be actively creating your intercultural communication style.

In business there are processes for understanding and improving many things, such as quality control, change management and workflow analysis. But why are there no processes for improving written and spoken communication within intercultural business contexts, so that everyone can learn together regardless of their culture? Unfortunately, for the most part workers are left to figure this out on their own. This is primarily due to the illusion that knowing English as a foreign language is enough. From my experience with clients over the past decade, English mastery alone is not enough. It is just the starting point. Beyond that there is significant room for improvement, whether English is a foreign language or your mother tongue.

I invite you to use the articles and actions on this site, as well as my Dance of Opinions eBook, to gradually and steadily build your communication competences. I also encourage you to be a catalyst for improving intercultural communication within your company. Share what you learn with others. Help others shatter the illusion that intercultural communication is taking place simply because everyone is using a common language.

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Exercise Intercultural Wisdom http://sherwoodfleming.com/exercise-intercultural-wisdom/ Sun, 30 Mar 2014 13:17:29 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3357 Knowing what you do not know is a sign of wisdom, according to Greek philosopher Socrates. A good example of this is intercultural wisdom, which can be defined as knowing what you do not know about the values, behavior and communication styles of people from other cultures. Working with clients from a variety of intercultural business contexts has shown me...read more →

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Knowing what you do not know is a sign of wisdom, according to Greek philosopher Socrates. A good example of this is intercultural wisdom, which can be defined as knowing what you do not know about the values, behavior and communication styles of people from other cultures. Working with clients from a variety of intercultural business contexts has shown me a consistent pattern of how cultural differences are perceived. Does the next paragraph describe how you approach the perception of cultural differences?

You assume that people from other cultures are fundamentally the same as you are, except they speak a different language and have different customs. You have spent years learning the vocabulary and grammar of English, since that’s now the language of international business, so that you can communicate across cultures. You have also learned some of the customs of other cultures. For example, when to shake hands, how to offer your business card, what topics of conversation are taboo in the other culture, and so on. In making all these efforts I imagine your sincere intention is that you do not want to say or do something that would be considered inappropriate by people from another culture. And you may expect people from other cultures to do the same for you.

The previous paragraph is often what is meant when we say that we know how to adapt to another culture. Using that measure, how do you rate your adaptation skills? Most people are fairly satisfied with themselves, when using this standard. However, as many of my clients have realized, it’s simply not enough. While it is a good starting point, more is required for you to be able to adapt to the kinds of communication challenges that arise within intercultural business contexts. When cultures mix, conflicting values, combined with a lack of awareness of that, soon become the most significant challenge.

Cultural Values Are Not As Clear As We Believe They Are

In the field of cultural values there are countless theories and models based on extensive studies, some of which are decades old, categorizing the values of different cultures. Conceptually speaking, this is an interesting voyage of discovery. However, when values clash, who has the “right” ones? This is what I see repeatedly as the one of the fundamental causes of communication problems that my clients experience. Why? Because we automatically assume that our values are the “right” ones, so we are not willing to adapt. And often, neither is the other person, which results in a stalemate.

Cultural values are not as clear as we believe they are

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What complicates things even further is that often you don’t even have a clear definition of your own values. Rather, they are simply part of how you function every moment of every day. For example, if you value politeness in the way the French do, you behave and speak politely in every situation, automatically. You don’t stop to think about it. But what most people fail to see is that politeness is manifested differently in France than it is in Japan, Poland, Hungary, Morocco or Germany. I mention those cultures in particular because that was the cultural mix I encountered last year during one of my two-day workshops on intercultural communication.

The participants were members of a team that had been working together for ten months. At one point during the workshop there was a heated debate about how each person’s version of politeness was the “right” one. Before long they were accusing each other of having the “wrong” version of politeness. They all realized by the end of the discussion that this was an issue that had been simmering under the surface since the creation of the team. Not only had they never discussed this, they hadn’t even been aware that it had been creating daily tension between them.

The Benefits of Increased Intercultural Insight

In my follow up with the team’s manager a few weeks later, he reported that they were more relaxed and tolerant of each other since the workshop. I was not surprised, because they had learned practical communication techniques during the workshop that they could confidently apply back at work. However, I am convinced that new techniques alone aren’t enough without increased insight about oneself and others. We often can’t see our own cultural values and how they determine how we communicate and behave. Knowing that we have these cultural blind spots about ourselves and others is the real road that leads to intercultural wisdom. There will always be many things that we don’t know about other cultures. And this is true no matter how long we live within them or work with people from cultures outside our own. So assuming that we know it all will result in the kind of issues I explored with this team.

Another interesting thing to me about this particular group was that most of them had a spouse from another culture. They were also teaching their children to speak several languages simultaneously. Even though their children were being schooled in France, they were also acquiring a unique blend of different cultural values and communication styles at home. Some of the participants told me that as a result of the workshop, not only did they have increased insight at work but in their home lives as well.

This story is representative of global trends: a multicultural team working in English as a foreign language within a multinational company with a head office in another country, and with team members having a multicultural family life. To effectively handle the challenges of these unique mixtures, we all need skills that go beyond just speaking a language well. To exercise intercultural wisdom, each of us also needs to acquire more communication skills in general and more intercultural communication skills in particular, while increasing our intercultural insight.

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Innovate More Effective Intercultural Business Communications http://sherwoodfleming.com/innovate-effective-intercultural-business-communications/ Sun, 23 Mar 2014 16:33:44 +0000 http://sherwoodfleming.com/?p=3353 Within intercultural business contexts it’s generally agreed that improving intercultural communication is important. Unfortunately, specific guidelines for what needs to be done and how to accomplish it are rarely identified and implemented. So if you are struggling with how to adapt your written and spoken business documents to your intercultural context, you are definitely not alone. I encounter this problem...read more →

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Within intercultural business contexts it’s generally agreed that improving intercultural communication is important. Unfortunately, specific guidelines for what needs to be done and how to accomplish it are rarely identified and implemented. So if you are struggling with how to adapt your written and spoken business documents to your intercultural context, you are definitely not alone.

I encounter this problem with my clients on a regular basis; what they thought they knew how to do well suddenly becomes challenging within the new intercultural context in which they find themselves. I have written elsewhere about how I‘ve helped clients prepare what to say or write for important meetings, presentations and video conferences. In each case, what we created together was appropriate for them, their profession and for their listeners or readers. From my perspective, adapting business documents to intercultural contexts is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. So the solution isn’t rigid guidelines that everyone must apply in the same way. Instead, flexibility and innovation, both individually and collectively, is what is required from all of us.

How Producing Business Documents Has Changed

From working within the business communications field for almost three decades, I have witnessed a revolution in how documents are produced. With the personal computer becoming cheaper, easier to use and more common in businesses, using software such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which came bundled with the first release of Microsoft Office in 1990, soon became part of everyone’s job description. This has evolved to the point where we are now responsible for all the content, visual aspects and final production of a wide range of business documents. The world over it’s now a significant part of our jobs to use the same set of digital tools to write, organize, design, format, produce and present documents. However, while the technology may be the same, our cultural standards are often very different.

What Standards Are You Using When You Create Business Documents?

You bring your cultural standards to every business document you create. And since you work within an intercultural context, every email, report or proposal that you receive is representative of the creator’s cultural standards of what is the “right” way to write and organize it.

You bring your cultural standards to every business document you create

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Longer documents or presentations are often unnecessarily complicated, due to the process of “document by committee.” This is the case in which only one or two people may be responsible for writing and producing a document. But before it is presented or distributed, it first goes through multiple stages of approval, with person who reviews the document adding suggestions and changes. When such participants are from different cultures, these interventions are not based on the same standards. That can cause a great deal of friction when resolving whose changes are “right” and whose are “wrong.” If you have experienced this, you know how frustrating it can be.

My point is that given the time pressure everyone feels, having guidelines to bridge cultural differences will come as a welcome relief. Who is currently providing you with such guidelines within your intercultural context? This is something that I find is overlooked by most of the international companies that I work with. Therefore, in the absence of such guidelines you will need to take the responsibility to invent your own.

To help you with that, my book Dance of Opinions: Mastering written and spoken communication for intercultural business using English as a second language, provides you with essential guidelines for creating documents within intercultural contexts. By applying these guidelines, you will be able to produce your business communications faster and with more confidence. Your documents will also be easier to understand, and more relevant for your readers and listeners from other cultures.

Many of the business communication standards that you now rely on originated decades ago, in another time and place, so there is an urgent need for new standards. That is why highly effective intercultural communicators consistently innovate new approaches to spoken and written communications, both on their own and with others. They know that what was appropriate for another time and place is no longer effective, so inventing something new is the only option.

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