Nov 07, 2022

How to develop cross-cultural communication skills

Do you prioritize harmony and relationships to the detriment of KPIs? Or do you talk it out as to why that report is late? Depending on where you’re from, one of those sentences will make your spine crawl. Cross-cultural communication skills don’t just cover etiquette. They also cover beliefs about how things get done. If you can’t adapt, you’ll get left behind. 

Culture shock or a choice?

We’re all human and deep down we have the same basic needs for survival and belonging. Where things get complicated is that culture impacts our beliefs, values, assumptions and how we view the world. Having cross-cultural communication skills means knowing how to maneuver through this complexity with sensitivity. 

With increased connectedness and a global village at our fingertips, you have a choice. You can either judge others according to the rules set by your culture or you can adapt and embrace cultural context. 

In the first instance, an ethnocentric person might blame those who are different and eventually withdraw. Alternatively, they might try to bulldoze over people and impose their views. Neither approach will get you far in your career. Moreover, you’ll experience shock because you can’t replicate your cultural rules. 

As this book summary on the characteristics of culture explains, cultural backgrounds are developed in 5 different ways: through learning, shared stories, created symbols, interactions and dynamic change. 

Clearly, you can’t just understand this complexity overnight. Nevertheless, people from different cultures can develop cross-cultural skills by leveraging emotional intelligence. The more self-awareness you have, the more likely you can shift your perspective and adapt your behavior. Now you can choose to stay away from blame so as to embrace curiosity, compassion and understanding.

With cross-cultural communication skills, you appreciate the differences and are able to find common ground more effectively. In business, this leads to more inclusive decision-making and greater innovation as more views are combined. 

Consider how many misunderstandings there are between people from the same culture, let alone different ones, and you’ll grasp the size of the challenge. In fact, cultural agility goes beyond communication skills in a diverse workplace, you need to know yourself and your beliefs. 

How to prepare for interacting with new cultures for the first time:

  • Research the cultural norms and best practices. The first thing to do before meeting a colleague from a different culture is to look up as much as you can about their cultural norms. A good place to start is reviewing how they perceive hierarchy. This HBR article on cultural differences provides an interesting table comparing countries in terms of how they view authority versus decision-making.
  • Reflect on how your culture is misunderstood and impacts your behaviors. When learning cross-cultural communication skills, you also need to evaluate how others see your own culture. Where do they get confused and how can you mitigate this?
  • Be present and mindful. This helps you manage your emotions when confused. Moreover, a mindful mind is more open and free of judgment. With practice, you’ll be able to see past stereotypes and realize that no one is purely individualistic or collectivist in attitude. We are all actually a complex blend of our personal experiences, our cultures and generational influences.

Transition your organization from a monocultural to an intercultural business

For instance, they assume that English verbal and body language are interpreted the same way across the world. Nevertheless, simple examples tell you otherwise such as in Bulgaria, nodding means no, and yes means “I understand” rather than “I agree” in most of Asia. Without cross-cultural communication skills, even those simple examples can lead to prejudice and withdrawal. To develop a strong cross-cultural organization, you first need to understand your current state so that you can set OKRs. Like everything, you need to measure your progress if you truly want to become an intercultural business. 

Establish first where your business is on the Intercultural Development Continuum. This curve details 5 stages of development going from denial to polarization and minimization to acceptance and finally adaptation. 

For example, a native English speaker at the adaptation stage can skilfully adapt their behavior according to cultural context whether they’re in Shanghai, Sao Paulo or Cairo. At the same time, they stay true to themselves such that others feel valued and included.

With cross-cultural communication skills, people in the acceptance or adaptation stage discover mutual understanding despite any language barrier. They challenge their assumptions with curiosity and might even get creative and use sketches or diagrams to establish understanding. To improve communication and build an intercultural corporate culture, you want to move towards acceptance and adaptation. Many businesses are in the minimization stage where people are aware of cultural differences but they promote a dominant culture. 

Regardless of which stage of cultural orientation you’re working with, development programs need to be individually tailored while staying team-focused. In fact, cross-cultural communication skills are best developed with self-reflection, usually supported by a leadership coach, along with peer reflection. 

An effective experiential development program would therefore cover these themes:  

  • Cognitive knowledge. Knowing what culture is and how it impacts team members’ behaviors is the first step. At this level, training is technical and details how we interpret verbal and nonverbal cues. For example, how Japanese greeting habits differ from those of US ones. 
  • Affective mindfulness. How can leaders and L&D teams create an environment where people want to discover new cultures and ways of thinking? This means managing emotions to tolerate ambiguity and mistakes while bringing humor when things go wrong.
  • Face-to-face peer discussions can be powerful ways to explore those feelings. You then develop a language and approach that makes it ok to get frustrated but “we work through it together.” Add to that mindfulness and you pause judgemental thinking that otherwise blocks cross-cultural communication skills.
  • Non-judgemental process. Are working practices geared towards a specific culture? For example, the West favors logic and rational whereas many countries in the East are more relationship-driven. The key is to review processes and templates with a multicultural team and evaluable how the work environment impacts each of them. Then, a common language can be agreed upon that honors all parties. 

Becoming a multicultural guru 

The complication with improving cross-cultural communication is that it’s often a blind sport. Most people are not as self-aware as they think they are and this can have dire effects. If you don’t know how your culture shapes your biases, it’s virtually impossible to adapt to various cultures. 

A useful quick check to see how open-minded you are to other cultures is to reflect on how multicultural your group of friends is. The London School of English also has an interactive intercultural quiz if you want to test yourself. 

To evolve your cross-cultural communication skills you need business exposure, reflection and social interaction. Naturally, the best approach is still accepting an international assignment. There’s a big difference between traveling to a hotel and trying to work out how to open a bank account in Nigeria or Mumbai. 

Essentially, we all need to immerse ourselves in culture shock at some point in our lives if we hope to communicate effectively in this global world. Clearly, not everyone can move countries. In that case, the way to work on your cross-cultural communication skills is to be imaginative in how you find exposure. Alongside that, work on your self-awareness. 

Our cultures condition how we interact with people and our environment. To change that programming, you need a leadership or language coach. As psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz explains in this interview on the brain-based approach to coaching, coaches play a major role in reprogramming us. Through “attention, reflection, insight and action” coaches guide leaders to drive the change they desire. 

How can you expand your multicultural mindset? 

Apart from the obvious interrelational benefits, why should you improve your cross-cultural communication skills? If nothing else, you’ll work more effectively with your global colleagues without discomfort and confusion. 

After all, cultural misunderstandings are frustrating for all parties. Instead, motivate yourself and your teams to learn together through the steps below so that you can create a more harmonious corporate culture. This will then engender innovation, strategic problem-solving, improved relationships and so much more. 

  • Build emotional awareness. To do this, start with self-awareness along with active listening and reflecting with a coach. An interesting exercise for you to then discuss with your coach is to watch or listen to someone talking from a different culture with an opposing view. Listen deeply and see if you can empathize with their views, without changing yours, but look for commonalities. We all have them, no matter how deep they are. 
  • Get to know your biases and triggers. Cross-cultural communication skills are negated by our reactivity. With a trusted friend or peer, discuss how your cultural background impacts your beliefs. What are your views on working styles, hierarchies and teamwork?
  • Increase your social interactions. If you can’t move abroad, you can look for cultural differences at home. Most places now have some opportunities for exposure whether through hobbies or social networking events. For example, you could join a foreign film group, an international online book club or multicultural industry events. Alternatively, find the ex-pats in your area and get to know them and their struggles. 

Raise your cultural Intelligence and become a more effective global leader 

Developing effective cross-cultural communication skills starts with being aware of how our own culture frames our thinking. Once you know your biases, you can start recognizing and adapting your perceptions and behaviors. 

You need curiosity and emotional intelligence to become adaptive and sensitive to cultures. The best development programs shift corporate cultures by introducing coaching to raise awareness. Concurrently, you need to review processes to ensure they allow everyone equal opportunity to express themselves. 

As you journey to becoming an intercultural organization, you’ll see your collaboration and innovation outputs increase. Furthermore, relationships will improve and lead to smoother and more inclusive decision-making. This isn’t just about reaching global markets. It’s about engaging all employees to learn together and unite to support each other

It takes work and patience but the resulting harmony and joy lead to happier people and greater business success. If that’s not worth the effort then what is? 


Coaching, Company Culture, L&D, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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