Test All Assumptions
We were in the middle of a teambuilding workshop for a German-American management team that was experiencing difficulties. My job as interculturalist and group facilitator was to help them improve their communication skills and to negotiate cultural hurdles. As soon as Karl-Heinz replied to Robert’s remark, I knew there was a disconnect and I stopped the discussion to clear up the difficulty.
I explained my assumption to the group and asked permission to use an active listening technique. After they agreed, I asked Karl-Heinz to tell Robert what he had just heard Robert say. He did so and I then asked Robert if that was what he had meant. Robert shook his head no. I then asked Robert to repeat to Karl-Heinz what he had originally said. He did so and I again asked Karl-Heinz to repeat what he had heard Robert say.
After Karl-Heinz explained what he had heard, I again asked Robert if this was what he meant. Again he shook his head no and I could see that Karl-Heinz was visibly uncomfortable. The rest of the team was also stirring uneasily.
I then asked Robert to repeat one more time what he had originally said. After he did so, I asked Karl-Heinz to tell Robert what he had heard Robert say. He did so and this time Robert nodded in agreement. All members of the team were visibly relieved.
From the above account you might suppose that Karl-Heinz spoke poor English but that would be wrong. Karl-Heinz is intelligent, well-educated and has lived in the U.S for more than 10 years. In short, he speaks English very well. Why then did he not get what Robert was saying? It was because Robert spoke fast, did not articulate clearly and used words and phrases which were abstract and ambiguous. He was also using euphemisms and being less direct than he could have as a way to avoid a delicate topic. Furthermore, he unconsciously assumed that someone who spoke English as well as Karl-Heinz did, would understand everything a native speaker of English would. That assumption is very common among native English speakers who have never learned another language and don’t know how tricky and subtle language barriers can be. It’s also an assumption that can be disastrous in a cross-cultural context.
Although everyone in the international business world knows that different languages create barriers to effective teamwork, many people miss all but the most obvious disconnects, thus causing lost time, reduced profits and lowered morale. A key skill for successful cross-cultural communication is to test all assumptions, especially when you sense that some sort of disconnect is keeping things from flowing as you would like.