Do you experience not being listened to or being misunderstood by your colleagues from other cultures when you speak and write in English as a foreign language? Are you frustrated by that? Do you blame yourself or others? Frustration and blame do not lead to improved communication — helping others to hear you differently, does.
Are you aware that within intercultural contexts, all of us listen with cultural ears? In other words, how we interpret what is being said or written has been culturally conditioned. Therefore, as speakers and writers we have to take more responsibility for the listening side of communication within intercultural business contexts.
In our own culture, there is less need for vigilance. That is not because we know the language better but because we have other cues, such as voice tonality, body language and shared values, which help us navigate the imprecise waters of words. Even in our own culture and native language, miscommunication takes place when what was said and what was heard do not match.
I find that the interpretative nature of listening is something many of my clients habitually fail to factor into their speaking and writing. Even when they are familiar with the principle of keeping the listener in mind, they do not know how to do that directly when speaking and writing in English for intercultural contexts. As one client told me, “I knew the concept of including the benefits for my listeners but I realize now I always said too little, too late.” So here are three questions to ask and answer before communicating with colleagues from other cultures.
1) How is what I am communicating relevant to my listener?
Whatever you are saying or writing means nothing in isolation. It is only in relation to what your listeners or readers want, need, fear or desire that your communication becomes relevant. All of us are used to asking the question, “What do I want to say?” Few of us also ask, “What is relevant to the listener or reader?”
If you do not take the time to decide what is relevant and then articulate that, what will motivate others to keep listening or reading? This is especially vital when communicating interculturally, since you cannot take for granted that people from other cultures share your assumptions about relevance.
While at first this can seem too complex an issue to deal with, I have shown client after client that they know a lot more about their listeners and readers than they realize. In fact, they become aware that they have already observed many of the things that I ask them to notice, when I show them how to apply step two of my five-step CLEAR method: link to your listener’s concerns. It is important to articulate explicitly what is relevant to the listener or reader. Why? Because within intercultural contexts only explicit communication makes it safely to the other side of the two-way street that I call intercommunication.
2) Am I clearly expressing what I mean?
This seems like a simple question. But it isn’t always easy to answer, because I find that my clients are not clear enough about what they mean to say. And if they do not know clearly what they mean, how can they expect the listener or reader to know? Indeed, it is a common mistake to put far too much responsibility for clarity onto others.
Before working with me, my clients’ focus is usually on giving their listeners and readers as much as they can say or write in the available time or space. In return, they expect a lot from those listeners and readers. First, they expect them to listen to and read everything in the communication. Second, they expect their listeners and readers to do the work of interpreting exactly what they mean.
When it becomes obvious that those two things did not happen, my clients usually conclude that their own English is not good enough. And if they are already native English speakers, they conclude that the English of the listeners or readers is not good enough.
What is missing from such conclusions is that, regardless of English competence, too many of us within intercultural business contexts are being unrealistic in our expectations of our listeners and readers. Due to time pressures, no one can listen to and read everything. And if you are not taking care to be as clear and concise as you can be, I guarantee others will not be motivated to do it for you.
3) Are you misinterpreting your listener’s or reader’s response to what you say or write?
Spoken or written words are not the only response you get from listeners and readers. People also respond in a variety of tones of voice, body language and sentence structures. Those tones, body language and structures are what I call the dance of language and are part of every communication, in every culture.
No matter what language is being used, you are always interpreting the dance from your own cultural point of view. But within an intercultural context, who has the ‘right’ interpretation? A vocal tone that is heard as negative in one culture may be positive in another. A gesture or facial expression that is interpreted as openness in one culture may appear closed in another. A sentence structure that signals collaboration in one culture may be seen as too authoritative in another. And so on.
Similar things happen during a phone call or while reading an email. During a phone call, interpreting body language is replaced by interpreting only the tone of voice. In an email you also interpret tonality, even if it is impossible to know what tone the sender actually intended. For example, have you ever noticed yourself reacting positively to what you interpret as a friendly, relaxed tone on the phone or in an email? On the other hand, how do you react to what you interpret as a disrespectful or unfriendly tone? Even with longer documents, such as a report or a proposal, you interpret and respond in similar ways.
I recommend that you refrain from interpreting your listener’s or reader’s dance, and practice responding only to the content in the communication. I help my clients do that by focusing on the speech act that is being expressed. When you know how to simplify communication in that way, you can be the one helping, rather than hindering, intercultural communication. You gradually become someone who listens with intercultural ears and sees with intercultural eyes. Then you can take concrete steps to improve how your colleagues from other cultures hear you.
Practicing these three steps, on a regular basis, will fundamentally change how you communicate in English as a foreign language with colleagues from other cultures. The result will be reduced frustration, increased confidence and more cooperation.