In last week’s article, I invited you to look at where you learned about expressing opinions. The influences included family, education, culture and profession. But few of us have learned how to adapt our habitual way of expressing opinions when working across cultures.
Building awareness of language and the role it plays in both building harmonious relationships and inspiring trust across cultures is my main objective in the work I do with my clients. In working with people from a variety of cultures over the past two decades, I have noticed that for most of us, language is transparent. In other words, we do not see what it is or how it works.
Many of us are blind to what is going on when we speak and listen in our own language. We bring those “blind spots” with us when we communicate in English as a second language with people from different cultures. For example, one blind spot is to confuse opinions and facts. Another one is to not differentiate between opinions based on facts and those not based on facts. In what follows I will explain what I mean by that.
Differentiating Grounded and Ungrounded Opinions
When you express your opinions, they are your point of view about the topic at hand. But what is your opinion based on? In business, when you are asked to speak or write about a topic, your opinion is usually related directly to your area of expertise. You can claim expertise based on both your knowledge and your professional experiences. As a result, you are competent in fulfilling the requirements of your job. Due to that competence you are also able to see things about the current topic that others are not capable of seeing. To say it another way, your opinions about that topic are more grounded than other people’s opinions.
Of course, people do not express opinions based only on their area of expertise. Indeed, in business, as in life in general, people express their point of view about everything, even when they have little or no knowledge and experience on which to base it. That is what I call ungrounded opinions.
For example, people without children often tell parents what they see as the right way to raise them. Movie stars give us their opinions about politics. People who have travelled to another country for a brief visit, and met very few people there, may not hesitate to give us their opinions about that country and those people.
However, you do not ask doctors to give you their opinions on accounting matters. Nor do you ask lawyers, movie stars or accountants about their point of view on medical problems you are having. For some topics we thus depend entirely on experts to give us the “right” opinion. While at other times we are willing to be persuaded by the opinions of people who have no related background or experience on which to base their opinions.
I have given you these examples to demonstrate that when we exchange opinions there are two different types: ones that are grounded in the speaker’s or writer’s knowledge and professional experience, and ones that are not. Grounded opinions and ungrounded opinions are thus fundamentally different. While that seems obvious enough, few of us pay sufficient attention to that difference when we are speaking and listening interculturally. As a result, we often diminish trust and cause conflict that is unwarranted. Often what we call power struggles or a clash of personalities is simply a lack of understanding about these two kinds of opinions. I will give you an example that I experienced with one of my clients.
When I met her, Hélène had a twenty-year career in the biological research department of a French company that had recently merged with a German firm. The result was that the official company language suddenly became English. Before the merger, Hélène had worked her way up to be the resident authority in her department. She had led her team to develop numerous innovative breakthroughs that resulted in financially viable products in the marketplace. As a result of her track record she had always been able to easily persuade management to direct its marketing and sales initiatives in a direction that aligned perfectly with her department’s discoveries. After decades of working this way, she had not needed to build a habit of grounding her opinions with relevant facts.
But virtually overnight she found herself in a position of having to constantly justify her recommendations, using English as a second language, to people with a different cultural and professional background than her own. The communication conflicts that resulted from this threatened to undermine her career and were causing her, and many around her, personal distress.
While she attributed her difficulties to personality issues and said she was being accused of not being adaptable enough, I viewed her communication challenges differently. I have seen repeatedly that intercultural communication problems are unique and require different solutions. They are rarely personality issues or the result of a general inability to adapt. Rather, they are often due to different standards of speaking and listening based on learned cultural habits, the values of which the individual is not even aware. Those are the blind spots I mentioned earlier.
In working with Hélène, I taught her to clearly differentiate between grounded and ungrounded opinions when speaking and listening. With practice she noticed that she became a more effective speaker and a better listener. During meetings and presentations, she backed up her recommendations with many more facts than before the merger. The result? Her collaborators and managers trusted her more.
I also often refer to grounded opinions as your unique offer. So just as Hélène had a unique communication style, her grounded opinions based on decades of knowledge and experience were her unique offer to others in the workplace. While she had fallen into the habit of taking that for granted, after several sessions with me she realized that if she wanted her new managers and coworkers to value her expertise, she would have to take responsibility for expressing it to them directly. How could they know of her past experiences if she didn’t tell them?
Her listening also changed. While she had listened to challenges to her recommendations as criticism, she now heard them clearly as ungrounded opinions, which were leading to misunderstandings. So she then took the initiative to make sure everyone had the facts she knew were needed to make solid business decisions. In short, she was able to walk both sides of what I call the two-way street of intercommunication.
Hélène had to do what many of my clients who find themselves in a similar position had to do — she had to adapt her communication style to new circumstances. While at first she was resistant to doing so, she soon found that the harmony and trust that resulted from this shift were well worth the extra effort on her part. She also discovered that intercultural communication challenges are not insurmountable when you identify specifically what you need to do and how.
If you are facing similar intercultural communication challenges, one of the single most effective things you can do to build more harmonious relationships and expand intercultural trust is to practice expressing grounded opinions. To that end, The Dance of Opinions is a book I wrote that’s dedicated to this topic. It outlines in detail my CLEAR method — a five-step process to show you how to express your opinions across cultures clearly, concisely and confidently. I encourage you to download an extract and let me know what you think.