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Cross cultural communication strategies


 — March 26th, 2018

Cross cultural communication strategies

Communicating effectively across cultural divides can be a challenge for organizations. The key is to bring the communication back to basics and establish a baseline where a common understanding exists. Here are our tips for keeping the lines of communication open in a multi-cultural workplace.

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In today's society, most workplaces will be populated with employees from different countries and cultures. And while language barriers can often be the most obvious stumbling block to effective communication in this environment, it's important not to dismiss the existence of cultural differences and the impact they can have on a productive workplace.

In fact, 2016 Culture Wizard global survey revealed that 68% of respondents reported that cultural challenges were the biggest hurdle to global virtual team productivity and 18% of respondents said that their companies have lost business opportunities because of cultural misunderstandings.

So what tactics should you use to ensure all relevant parties share a common understanding.

Practice active listening

Active listening is a vital step in developing successful cross-cultural communication in the workplace. By actively listening to the speaker you can establish trust and build a relationship as they know you are really listening to what they are saying.

  • It's important to focus completely on the speaker, give them your full attention. This is especially important when you are speaking with a non-native English speaker.
  • It's a good idea to paraphrase elements of the conversation and repeat them back to the speaker, this provides two benefits, it shows that you're listening and also ensures you've understood the conversation.
  • If you're struggling to sense the tone of the conversation looks for non-verbal clues in their body language - is it positive, angry, frustrated, negative.
  • Share your own body language to show you're listening: a nod, leaning towards the person, maintaining eye contact. Be respectful of your body language and bear in mind that in some cultures personal contact is not acceptable.

The goal is to leave the conversation with no misunderstanding on either side: you have understood what has been said, and the speaker is confident you have understood them.

Be an effective communicator

As well as demonstrating active listening, you need to hone your communication skills.

  • Be clear with instructions, and if necessary, ask the other person to repeat the instructions back to you to ensure they have understood.
  • Be approachable and open. Make it clear to employees that they can come to you with any questions or concerns they might have. This will be even more important in some cultures who might be reluctant to raise their heads above the parapets for fear of reprisal.
  • Show empathy in your communications with all employees. It's important that they feel you are not just listening to their concerns but really hearing them.
  • Be respectful in all your communications. In a multi-cultural environment, it can be a challenge to avoid offending someone, no matter how unintentional. The best course of action is to be clear and concise at all times, be approachable but never to familiar and give consistent feedback.
  • Be cautious with humor. Humor is often a personal thing, and many cultures simply don't appreciate the humor in the workplace. If you do want to lighten the mood, make sure your brand of humor is not likely to cause offense.

Don't be judgmental

There will be differences across cultures, and this cannot be altered. The key is to respect those differences and to work with them or around them. One of the main principles of effective cross-cultural communication is that there is no judgment.

  • It's a good idea develop at least some knowledge of your team's backgrounds and cultures so on some level you can establish a basic rapport. There will, of course, be elements that you may not understand, but it's important to reserve judgment.
  • Consider promoting cultural diversity among your team. A couple of hours where team members talk about certain elements of their culture to the team could be a good way to build team respect and cultural knowledge, and it could also be a good icebreaker.

Building cross-cultural communication in the workplace can be a challenge, but creating an environment where your team feels listened to, respected and understood can be rewarding, and importantly, could lead to improved productivity and staff retention.

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