Have you ever been told that you have to adapt? Whenever the word “adapt” is used within intercultural contexts, people often interpret that to mean they are “wrong” and that someone else is imposing what “right” is. As a result, resistance to adapting is common. Even when they accept that they need to adapt, they are confused about exactly what they should do. Rarely do I find someone embracing adaptation, especially when it involves adapting how he or she communicates for an intercultural business context.
Often that is because how we communicate is inseparable from “who we are.” To ask someone to adapt how he or she communicates is to imply that his or her way of being is flawed; I wrote elsewhere about how much our identity is wrapped up with our communication style. I also find that many people sincerely believe that there’s nothing left to learn about how to communicate more effectively. They assume that how they speak and write is adequate and do not even question whether they are missing something crucial.
We have already spent our lives learning how to communicate and at a certain point we believe that the learning is finished. That might be true if we never changed jobs or never used foreign languages in business or never worked within intercultural business contexts. However, many of us suddenly find ourselves in situations that are vastly different from what we have known before. When contexts change, we cannot expect that how we learned to communicate will work as well as it did before.
Another reason to adapt is that the speed at which we communicate is getting faster and faster. It’s not news to anyone that meetings and presentations are shorter than ever. And that brief emails and text messages are replacing longer letters and faxes. Reports and other lengthy documents seem like dinosaurs in today’s world. Yet we are still in the habit of speaking and writing in the same way that we always have. Also in danger of extinction are real face to face meetings, which are increasingly being conducted by Skype or other similar technologies.
I hear daily laments from my clients about the stress and pressure of these combined influences: dealing with other cultures, using a foreign language and working within these ever-shorter time frames using new technologies. I hear this so often, in fact, that I consider it a communication epidemic. The major symptom of this epidemic is that my clients have lost confidence in their ability to communicate well.
Are you also experiencing this? If so, I assure you that you are not alone. It’s a fact of life that we are all struggling to say what we mean as quickly as possible in a way that not only leads to understanding but also accurately transmits who we are and what we are capable of. This can feel like existential angst — if I can’t communicate the way I used to, then who am I?
My objective when working with clients is to teach them techniques for meeting these new, never-before-lived communication challenges: not only to alleviate their distress and build their confidence but also to improve their business relationships.
Adapting how you communicate is not about fixing anything but rather about learning new ways of speaking, writing and listening more effectively for the intercultural present.