The first time I meet with new clients, or a group of seminar participants, who use English as a second language within an intercultural business context, I ask many questions that no one has ever asked them before. The first one I usually begin with is, “What is your unique communication style?” While most people cannot immediately answer that question, they are intrigued by it, since it opens the possibility of looking at something that most of us fail to notice.
Communication is like the air we breathe; it is transparent. When we are speaking our native language we all assume that how we communicate is good enough. Few of us consider that how we write, speak and listen has evolved over our lifetimes. There are five key influences that have formed our style: genetics, family, culture, education and profession. Here are the kinds of questions I have my clients explore when working with me. Answer them for yourself to discover the influences on your unique communication style.
In short, there have been many influences on the evolution of your unique communication style. When you are in a context with people who share many of the same influences as you, then speaking, writing and listening are transparent for you. By that I mean that you do not even notice them, and communicating thus feels effortless. Not surprisingly, within intercultural contexts we all bring our unique communication style to using English as a second language.
For example, at a recent international conference I listened to presentations in English about global projects and related problems between the participating French managers, German scientists, American politicians and South American engineers. If you think back to the five influences on communication style that I pointed out above, you can see that there were no common points of speaking and listening for these professionals with such diverse backgrounds, even though they were all speaking English.
What was obvious to me during that two-day conference was that no one was even aware that they had a unique communication style. Nor did it ever occur to any of them that it was not their English skills that were creating confusion and undermining their credibility. Instead, the problem was the unique communication style that they had learned and never examined for its appropriateness to an intercultural context.
My point is not to criticize these speakers or their unique communication styles; their styles worked well in other contexts. But they did not have the capacity to see it was not a fit for this conference. Do you do the same thing?
If so, it is not your fault. You simply haven’t been aware of what you were doing or what you need to change. However, now that you know, you can make a commitment to developing your intercultural communication style.
Actively Developing an Intercultural Communication Style
Since you can’t change what you can’t see, I help my clients see how they communicate, decide what they want to change and then how to change it. For most of my clients, it’s the first time that they have actively participated in crafting their communication style. Our unique style is due to a number of influences throughout our lives that we didn’t choose. They just happened to us. And while that approach has been perfectly adequate, when contexts change, how we communicate must also change. That is what my book, Dance of Opinions, my interactive workshops and one-on-one communication coaching with clients focuses on. I show readers and clients how to expand their unique communication style to be a better fit for the international business context they are now working in, whether at home or abroad.
From my point of view, when contexts change, it does not make sense to just keep speaking, writing and listening in the same way. New contexts require new actions. I am convinced that we must stop ignoring the need to adapt our unique communication style and ensure it’s a better fit with whatever intercultural context we find ourselves in.