Do you reflect on the strategies you use at your work place to communicate with individuals who have a different cultural background from you? Do you use the same strategies you use with the co-worker or customer who is culturally different from you as you use with the co-worker or customer who shares the same culture as you? What about active listening? How would active listening be used in an intercultural interaction?
Here is a list of five strategies that are concerned with listening actively in order to create more meaningful intercultural interactions:
- Listen past your co-worker’s style of communication which may be different from yours:
- Your co-worker may be using a communication style that aligns well with their/her/his first language and cultural background and that they/she/he has naturally and unconsciously transferred to the second or third language they/she/he is using to communicate with you.
- This means *they* may be used to interrupting frequently, or doing what you consider interrupting, or used to maintaining a period of silence that you consider awkward, or used to taking more time than you usually do to reach the end of a speech and make a point, if they have a point to make.
- This means you need to be patient, flexible, and creative in using and adapting strategies to understand *them* rather than being prescriptive about how they should communicate with you.
- You also need to avoid negative judgements about them for using different verbal and non-verbal communication patterns that are consistent with their primary linguistic background and culture. For example, they may not use the same etiquette during your interactions as people who share your culture. This means they may not smile, or offer to shake your hand, or make eye contact, or make small talk about the weather, or wait patiently and quietly in line for service. If they look off into the distance while they speak to you, you do not need to shift your position and place yourself right in their line of sight.
- You could describe your communication style to them and it is advantageous for you to learn about *their* style in return. Remember, though, that they have the freedom and right to imitate your style or not, as you have the choice to do the same.
- An ideal situation would be one where both of you make the effort, collectively as team members, to learn each other’s style, adapt as you go along, and become more proficient in adapting through frequent practice. This strategy could be effective in both a co-worker as well as a customer/client service relationship.
- Listen past the different ways your client may or may not show emotion:
- For example, they may appear to express their needs in a way that seems more “aggressive” or “demanding” or “impatient” than the way people in your culture usually express their needs.
- If they sound angry to you, it may be a sign they are in desperate need of help. Perhaps, you are their last resort. They may not be aware that they are presenting *themself*, according to your cultural expectations, as “difficult” or “rude”. Of course, there may be situations when this idea does not apply, and you would need to act differently.
- In situations where the individual sounds and is indeed angry, but is not a threat, it takes a higher degree of proficiency to turn the situation around and reassure them that you will help them solve their problem.
- Listen past your student’s different way of learning:
- For example, they may prefer to listen, observe, read, receive instructions, and analyze rather than ask questions, discuss the subject, share an opinion, or disclose information openly.
- This means that you may need to adapt how you ask for input, ideas, and feedback, rather than assume they will provide the required information automatically.
- You may also need to find complementary ways of sharing knowledge. Avoid depending solely on one method that people in your culture usually use such as networking during informal gatherings or coffee breaks. Be conscious of whether the methods are capable of reaching those who may not be part of traditional networks that are based on your culture’s practices.
- Listen past your customer’s different way of interpreting rules and regulations:
- Suspend judgement about dealing with outcomes that may not conform with your organization’s standing policies and procedures, for example, if the customer did not fill out a form accurately, or if they missed a deadline.
- This means that you avoid the assumption that what the customer did was deliberate and not blame and criticize them for the current situation, problem, or need. You also need to avoid the assumption that there is only one way and the right way to interpret the rules and regulations. Despite the on-going effort you may invest with improving clarity, there will continue to be new and different interpretations and degrees of identification and ownership for those policies and procedures.
- You could try to visualize the quality of assistance or support you would like to receive if you were your own customer and if you would be satisfied with it.
- You could also try to visualize how getting the help you need would bring relief to your emotional and mental state and reduce your stress level.
- Listen past your employee’s different way of understanding and managing conflict:
- For example, they may prefer to avoid discussing a disagreement directly with you, or they may confide in someone else about it and ask that person to intercede for them. In this case, accept the difficulty they have with direct confrontation and accept the representative’s assistance.
- If they attempt to discuss the disagreement with you, be sensitive and patient about how challenging it may be for them to do so. Appreciate and acknowledge that individual’s courage as well as vulnerability.
In conclusion, it is important to note that active listening is considered one of the key skills necessary for building intercultural competence. In the context of appropriate intercultural interactions, active listening requires a shift from your usual mindset. This shift in mindset is also known as the ability to empathize.
When you are empathetic, you are better able to focus on the communication task and goal at hand. You will be able to work more collaboratively with a team member or provide better service to a client. You will strengthen your resilience rather than be waylaid by your own cultural programming or expectations, ego, and bias. Active listening means listening with empathy and it will help you to move forward.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss any of the ideas in this blog post, please send a message through the Contact page on this website or the email address provided in the footer of this page. Thank you for reading!
*The pronouns: they, them, their and themself are used to refer to an individual, not a group, who does not identify as male or female. This set of pronouns is also used throughout the article to promote inclusion and readability.*