Have you been working in an intercultural context now for several years? Do you consider yourself a “senior” and believe that there is really not much more you can learn, with the result that you have stopped trying?
The “seniors” I meet in my work may not be senior in years but they are old in their attitude to change; they believe that change is something they no longer have to initiate. However, as I frequently point out to my clients, if you don’t choose change, change will choose you.
I see that phenomenon every day within the international businesses that my clients work for. Take the senior manager at a biochemical firm who was having increasing difficulties motivating her team. When I asked her when the problems began, she said that it was just after a recent company merger, when people she had once worked with remotely were now all under the same roof. Before the merger she had only managed French colleagues speaking French; now she managed people from several European cultures. Since she had communicated with these people via email and had met them at yearly conferences, she assumed that she knew enough about them already. She did not think there was any need for her to expand her intercultural awareness or communication competences.
What she did not take into account is that when contexts change, how we communicate must also change. That is especially true when working interculturally if the official corporate language, typically English, is not everyone’s native language. As I have written elsewhere, we bring our own unique communication style to speaking English as a foreign language. That fact brings unique communication challenges within intercultural teams that few managers are trained to identify and remedy.
During my audit of the communication problems at my client’s biochemical company, I discovered that the employees that moved to France assumed they would need to learn to adapt. However, they were not really sure how to do that. Some of them soon became frustrated because they were getting feedback that they were, in the words of their managers, “not adaptable enough.”
On the contrary, it was those who were French, and had been working for the company for years, who said that they did not really believe that they needed to adapt. This was especially true of many of the project leaders and managers. They assumed it was going to be business as usual. When they began to see that what had worked so well before was no longer effective, they were equally frustrated and unsure of what action to take.
The reason everyone was having similar difficulties is that when you are having communication problems you have to be able to see how you communicate, and also to identify what is no longer a good fit for your current context. In other words, you have to be able to see what to change and practice changing it.
Most cannot do that for themselves, since they have learned to communicate over a lifetime and so they speak, listen and write on autopilot. They don’t know how to change how they speak, listen and write for their different listeners or readers. That is what my book Dance of Opinions: Mastering written and spoken communication for intercultural business using English as a second language shows readers how to do in great detail. It is based on my experience over the past decade with clients in international companies like the one I discussed above.
Most of us are not aware of how cultures speak through us and how all of us listen with what I call cultural ears. That is, how you learned to express yourself is clearer to others of the same culture than it is to people from other cultures. We all learn a cultural shorthand that includes not only vocabulary but more significantly cultural values and standards.
We assume others are interpreting what we are communicating with those same values and standards. When it is clear that they are not, we accuse them of being “not adaptable enough.” Or we accuse ourselves of not knowing English as a second language well enough. On both sides, people get discouraged because the problem seems unsolvable. As I demonstrate to my clients in seminars and individual sessions, there are always concrete ways to bridge the predictable kinds of communication gaps that arise within intercultural business contexts.
Regardless of your age or range of experience, the only requirement is a willingness to look at your situation from a new perspective and to practice communicating in new ways. No one is ever too old to learn alternative ways of seeing and communicating. My specialty is to help people identify what is not working in how they communicate and to give them concrete, reliable ways to expand their intercultural awareness and intercultural communication competences. Once they learn how to apply that in their particular intercultural situation, they then have a set of skills that they can apply to other situations in the future.
The truth is that, as the saying goes, “The only constant is change.” Unfortunately, too many of us are locked within the mindset of wishing for constancy. And when we see that isn’t possible, few of us have mastered the skill set that allows us to navigate confidently through constant change – namely, to keep extending yourself. That’s the key skill set to have at any age.