Are you having trouble improving how you communicate with colleagues from other cultures? If so, this should not come as a surprise, since most of us have not learned how to communicate interculturally. We have never been shown how to adapt our speaking, writing and listening to an intercultural context. So you are not alone if you are encountering difficulties.
My claim is that when we are obliged to use English for business, we do not see that everyone is bringing his or her own cultural communication style to how the English is actually used. Everything I do is aimed at showing people what to adapt and how. In what follows are three simple things you can do to quickly improve how you communicate with colleagues from other cultures.
1: Tell your listener or reader how what you are communicating is relevant to them.
How is what you are saying or writing relevant to your listener? Your communication, whatever it is, 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?” But few of us also ask, “What is relevant to the listener or reader?”
I recommend that you take the time to decide why what you are communicating is relevant and then to tell that to your listener or reader. That will motivate them to keep listening or reading. This is especially important when communicating interculturally, since you cannot take for granted that people from other cultures share your assumptions about relevance.
2: Keep your communication short, simple and direct.
Too many of us within intercultural business contexts are being unrealistic in our expectations of our listeners and readers. Do you expect a lot from your listeners and readers?
First, do you expect them to listen to and read everything that you communicate? Due to time pressures no one can listen to, and read, everything.
Second, do you expect them to understand complex explanations and recommendations? Intercultural contexts are not the place to demonstrate an extensive vocabulary, thoroughness and nuanced reasoning.
Short, simple and direct is a better formula than long, complex and indirect.
3: Tell your listeners or readers why they should trust you.
If your listeners and readers do not trust you, they will stop listening and reading. We typically build our identities and inspire trust by the actions others see us taking, day in and day out. However, often within intercultural business contexts we have to communicate with people who do not work with us regularly or who do not know us. Despite this, we expect them to trust us. But you cannot expect trust to be given automatically, especially within intercultural contexts.
Nothing undermines trust more than unclear communication. That is why the priority cannot be to simply “speak English better.” Rather, it has to be communicating as clearly and concisely as possible, so that we can understand each other better. I am convinced that without understanding, there can be no trust. Without trust, there is less cooperation and more conflict.
So, regardless of the purpose of any single communication, your objective for all written and spoken communication should always be to lay the foundations for mutual trust.
I am convinced that it is within everyone’s power to improve how they communicate in English as a second language with their colleagues from other cultures. I encourage you to be the one leading the way.
Sherwood Fleming is the originator of the five-step CLEAR method for improving intercultural communication.