In the last three articles you have been exploring how to see what to change, determine what is open to change and then choose what to change in the way you communicate across cultures. But nothing happens without a final, crucial step — practice. You have to practice so that change can happen. Why? Because change is not a destination, it is a process. Accustomed as most of us are to a goal-oriented mindset in business, a common misconception is that we can set targets on communication changes and get there on deadline.
Let’s look at this misconception about change. I will use a sports example. Imagine that you are an average tennis player. You are no longer satisfied with your level and decide to improve your game. You would not expect that reading about how to be a great tennis player would be enough. And yet, when we want to become better at communicating across cultures, we really believe that simply reading concepts about intercultural communication is sufficient to produce different actions.
Back to the tennis example. What would you do to improve your game? You’d probably hire a coach and agree to do what he or she suggests. If the coach told you to hit the ball against a wall every day for fifteen minutes, you would do it. Or if the suggestion was to hold your racket a different way, you would not argue and say, “But that doesn’t feel comfortable.” Instead, you would willingly go through the discomfort, even though initially you might play worse than before. If you questioned the coach, you would be told that this was a temporary situation and that with persistence you would see how much your game would improve. And you would indeed discover that what once felt uncomfortable would eventually not only feel more comfortable but would be far more effective. What you were practicing was improving your game in ways you could never have predicted when you started.
Communication Skills Need Practice
If I suggested to you that you practice what you chose to change in the previous article for fifteen minutes every work day, would you do it? I find that those amongst my clients who are willing to practice make huge improvements very quickly. Communication skills, like sports skills, are embodied skills. By that I mean, they are acquired by doing, not by reading about them or grasping them conceptually. This is one of the reasons that children learn faster than adults. Children are willing to practice, a little at a time. They don’t create goals. They don’t need to set aside a particular time in the day to practice. They practice in any context without inhibition or shame about not doing the exercise well enough.
It is the same with improving your intercultural communication skills. The first time you try communicating differently it may feel uncomfortable and may appear to be less effective than what you did before. The second time it will be slightly easier but still not as effective as you would like. However, after twenty, thirty or one hundred times it will be comfortable and increasingly more effective. Small incremental actions practiced repeatedly are what lead to building more appropriate habits for communicating across cultures.
Adapting how you communicate in English across cultures is not as overwhelming or insurmountable as you may think. It often simply requires someone to show you what is possible and what to practice. In all that I do, my commitment is to creating clear and confident intercultural communicators.