Actually, this depends on whether what you want to change can in fact be changed. The surest road to endless frustration is trying to change something that is not open to change. In contrast, the biggest lost opportunity is not trying to change something because you believe it is not possible to change it. So let’s examine which is which.
What is not Open to Change
First, you can’t change other people. When I say that in my intercultural communication seminars, people often laugh. If I ask someone why they’re laughing, the answer is usually the same. Regardless of the person’s culture I am told, “I know that’s true, Sherwood, but I still try to do that all the time.” Do you also do that? If you stop to think about it, you will admit that without the other person’s cooperation, he or she cannot be changed.
Second, you can’t change personality. I find that what people label as a “personality flaw” is often an incompetence with a particular speech act. For example, I was working with a manager recently who was having communication problems with her multicultural team. The first time I met with her she thought that she had the solution to her problem: “I have to stop being such a perfectionist,” she told me. When I asked her how successful she had been so far in her personality transformation, she said, “Not at all. I guess I’m just not adaptable enough.” But her dilemma wasn’t about her so called perfectionism or an inability to adapt. Instead, I worked with her over several sessions, showing her how to make clear and extremely detailed requests.
In my experience no one can meet a perfectionist’s standards, because their standards are unclear, even to themselves. And if they aren’t clear about their expectations, how can anyone meet them? By improving her ability to make clear requests, my client solved her problem without changing her personality. She also no longer needed to label herself incorrectly as “not adaptable enough.”
This example is not an isolated instance. Over the years I have helped countless professionals manage what they considered personality flaws by simply improving their competences in using speech acts. Their personality didn’t change but their communication problems were resolved. From my experience many “personality conflicts” are language based. Especially within intercultural contexts, the solution is in language, not in personality.
Third, you can’t change people’s perceptions of time. A fact of life is that cultures condition our perception of time; how we view deadlines, what is being late or on time, and what is too fast or too slow is culturally conditioned. A French executive in one of my seminars had worked in dozens of countries during his long career. He told several amusing anecdotes about what being “on time” could mean in different cultures. He said being on time can mean anything from being a few minutes late, several hours late or even arriving a day late for a meeting. Due to his extensive experience he had learned to be extremely flexible in his time parameters when managing multicultural teams. As a result, he openly discussed other people’s cultural guidelines and negotiated mutually agreed-upon time standards, rather than blindly imposing his own.
What is Open to Change
It is commonly agreed upon that values are not open to change but I’m not convinced about that. I agree that cultures condition us to believe that certain values are the “right” values. And often we are not even aware of what those are, until they are challenged within an intercultural context. The biggest challenge when cultures mix is who has these supposedly “right” values? Is there an open discussion about who adapts to whom, and how?
There are no formulas to be followed but I recommend examining the possibility that values are more open to change and negotiation than most of us say they are. I always explore this possibility with clients who lead intercultural teams when values are the root cause of their communication difficulties.
Use Your Time Efficiently by Focusing on What is Possible to Change
I have seen repeatedly over the years that people, regardless of their culture, waste a lot of time and effort trying to change what cannot be changed: other people, their personality “flaws” and other people’s perceptions of time. On the other hand, they do not make any attempt to change what can be changed: their own perceptions of time, their values and how they speak and listen.
The way you make requests, offers, promises and declarations, as well as how you express opinions and facts, can be changed. Indeed, part of learning any new language is mastering the form and vocabulary of those fundamental speech acts. But in order to communicate effectively within an intercultural business context, you have to go beyond the basics. You also have to learn to use speech acts more skillfully for coordinating action, building trust and having more cooperative relationships. You can also change how you hear requests, offers, promises, declarations, opinions and facts. You can learn to listen with what I call intercultural ears. Since how you speak and listen is simply a total of the habits created over a lifetime, you can build new habits that are a better fit with your current intercultural business context.
Speaking and listening habits are open to change. You have learned to say and hear speech acts a particular way from your native culture. But you can learn to say them and hear them differently when using English within intercultural business contexts. By doing so you will be able to more effectively communicate within any intercultural business context, since speech acts are the universal language that we all share in common.
Once you have determined what you can and can’t change, you can choose precisely what you want to change. That way you can focus your efforts and make greater progress, faster. The next article will give you some ideas about where to begin.