The exchange of opinions is both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity within intercultural businesses is that differing opinions about everything is the norm: how to be an employee, how to be a manager, how to perform a particular task, how to sell, how to negotiate, how to run a meeting, how to give a presentation, and so on.
However, such diversity is also at the root of many of our challenges within intercultural contexts. Underlying everything that we do together in the course of our working day is constant agreement and disagreement, both spoken and unspoken. Even though we barely notice that, it affects us individually and collectively. We can all decide to become more effective at expressing our opinions clearly within an intercultural context, where there are often little or no agreed-upon guidelines.
The first step is to become aware of where you learned what I call your dance of opinions. Even when using English as a common language, everyone brings their cultural dance with them. Did you know that throughout your life there have been multiple influences that formed your dance of opinions? Here are some questions you can ask yourself. Take some time to reflect on these influences to gain some insight into your unique way of expressing your opinions.
You first learned the “right” way to express your opinions in the context of your family. In your family, were you encouraged to express your opinions during a discussion? Was it okay to disagree? How did you react when others disagreed with you? What reactions were considered appropriate? Which ones were considered inappropriate? What tone of voice was allowed or not allowed?
While obviously not every person born and raised in the same culture has exactly the same style of expressing an opinion, there are observable common characteristics, due to the fact that our families and school systems are typically coherent with the cultures in which we live. However, if one or both parents were from a different culture than the one you grew up in, you likely experienced conflicts over which was the “right” way to express your opinion. You would have received a different set of guidelines at home than in school.
I have observed this with clients who did not grow up with a homogenous set of guidelines. They are often more accustomed to such diversity. Without even being aware of it, they learned some additional adaptive skills early in this domain.
How homogenous was your upbringing? If it was not very homogenous, were there conflicts that arose due to opposing guidelines for how you were expected to express your opinions at home, compared to at school or in society in general?
Throughout your education you adapted your dance of opinions several times. In your primary and secondary schools, were you allowed to disagree with a teacher? On what issues? And if it was allowed, was it permissible to disagree publicly? Or could you only do that in a private meeting with the teacher? Do you recall learning a written or oral structure for presenting opinions?
How did that change when you began studying for your current profession? For example, lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, graphic designers, interior designers and managers are all taught a particular vocabulary and way of expressing opinions that they share with others in their profession. That helps them coordinate action more effectively with each other.
Part of what characterizes a corporate culture is how opinions are exchanged. When a merger or takeover of a company takes place, the corporate culture’s “right” way to express an opinion also changes. This is especially the case when a different culture is involved; yet this is an issue that is rarely addressed.
In your company, who are you comfortable expressing your opinions to? Who are you uncomfortable expressing your opinions to? Is your dance of opinions similar or different in each case?
If the corporate culture in which you work has changed, how do you feel about expressing your opinions now? Are you freer or less free to express your opinions than in the past? How is that affecting you?
How Do You Adapt Your Dance of Opinions for Intercultural Contexts?
In spite of developing our ability to express opinions throughout our lives, there is a set of skills that most of us have not learned. Most of us do not know how to adapt our dance of opinions in English for intercultural business contexts. If you are experiencing difficulties, you can begin by asking yourself some relevant questions.
Is how I express opinions inappropriate for my current intercultural context? Is that contributing to the communication problems I am experiencing? What can I do about it?
In working with individuals and teams within international companies in France for the past decade, I have often heard my clients say that what used to work well for them in their native languages and with people of their own cultures now doesn’t work as well. They feel frustrated and uncertain about what to do to solve the problem. Also, many of my clients tell me that they are not as persuasive or confident when expressing opinions in English during meetings, presentations and in proposals and reports. What I have seen repeatedly is that at a certain level of English competence this is not due to a lack of vocabulary or grammar skills, but rather not knowing how to adapt expressing opinions within a new intercultural context.
To help my clients solve those problems, I created the CLEAR method for expressing opinions, which I have evolved over the past decade of working with clients from a variety of cultures. The five-step CLEAR method provides a unique and practical approach to make the exchange of opinions faster, easier and more effective. It forms the heart of my book, Dance of Opinions: Mastering written and spoken communication for intercultural business using English as a second language.
If expressing opinions is something you need help with, you can start by reading an excerpt from the book. I offer several one- and two-day workshops, so that people in the same department or company can work more effectively together as a team to build these essential skills.
Expressing your professional opinions clearly and confidently is not a luxury in today’s fast-paced international business environment — it’s a necessity.