Cross-Cultural Understanding

How to deal with communication differences when working internationally
Chia Suan Chong
By Chia Suan Chong
Excedo blog in Breaking global business barriers Jun, 2019

Ana and Satori were based on two different continents working on the same virtual team. They had regular virtual meetings with their international team and the differences between Ana and Satori’s ways of working soon became apparent after several meetings.

During team meetings, Ana tended to talk a lot. She would tell the team her opinions and her ideas. Ana wouldn’t hesitate to talk at length about her feelings about an issue the team was facing.  Sometimes, when a team member was talking, Ana would interrupt with comments and suggestions.

Satori, on the other hand, tended to stay quiet. Even when she was asked for her opinions, she often hesitated and when she did speak, she would start her sentences with phrases like ‘I’m not sure if this is true for everybody but…’, ‘I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for but…’, or ‘I think my idea is nothing new but…’

International business discussion

Different perspectives

Looking through Ana’s eyes

Ana found Satori frustrating. She interpreted Satori’s quietness as a lack of interest and commitment to the team. Ana felt Satori was not working as hard as the other team members and regularly complained, saying that ‘Satori never seems to have an opinion on anything’. She thought Satori’s constant hedging showed that Satori had no confidence in her own abilities to support the team and often wished that the team leader would replace Satori with someone more dynamic.

Looking through Satori’s eyes

Satori found Ana frustrating. She interpreted Ana’s active participation as a rude and egotistical way of making everything about herself, her opinions and her feelings. Satori found Ana’s interruptions very disturbing and disrespectful and often wished that Ana would stop talking incessantly. She wondered if Ana’s attention-seeking behaviour was in order to conceal her insecurities and inabilities. Satori felt that if Ana was replaced with someone less disruptive, the team would be more efficient and effective.

Passing judgment on those who are different

Ana and Satori had very different approaches to how they participated in team meetings. When confronted with someone who had vastly different norms and behaviour from themselves, they did what most of us would have done: they both jumped to certain conclusions about the other; they interpreted the other person’s behaviour according to their own attitudes, values and beliefs.

After all, when you have spent most of your life looking at things one way, it can be very difficult and disturbing when trying to see things from a different perspective. However, when working internationally, seeing things from only one perspective can lead to conflict, misunderstanding and an unhappy working relationship.

Intercultural understanding in global business

The ADAPT Model

Communication is a two-way process and we need to take responsibility for the part we play in the interaction. One way to do this is to use the ADAPT model, a five-step framework that I developed to help us deal with differences in intercultural communication.

Awareness: Be aware of how you are feeling. How is the behaviour different from what you were expecting? How is my behaviour being perceived? Is it different from what they were expecting? How might they interpret my behaviour?

Don’t Judge: Although it is tempting to interpret their behaviour according to your own norms, values and beliefs, hold back on making judgments about their behaviour. What prejudices or stereotypes might be affecting how I see them?

Analyse: Why do they behave this way? Consider the different possible reasons for their behaviour. Ask questions, do some research, open a conversation to find out more. Deepen your understanding so that you can see things through their eyes.

Persuade Yourself: Now that you understand the reasons for their behaviour, can you find a way to relate to it? Are you able to find similarities between your values and beliefs and those that underlie that behaviour? Have you yourself ever engaged in such behaviour in a different context?

Try: What can you do to try and accommodate this behaviour? Perhaps you can change the way you see certain things? Perhaps you can try talking about this openly with the other person? Perhaps you can adapt your behaviour slightly? In international communication, all it sometimes takes is a small change on your part to make things work.

Chia Suan Chong ADAPT approach to intercultural understanding
Chia Suan Chong's ADAPT approach to intercultural understanding

Ana tries the ADAPT model

Applying the ADAPT model, Ana did the following:

Awareness: Ana reconsidered the situation with Satori and realized that she had expected Satori to participate in the meeting in the same way she does. She became aware that she found Satori’s silence disturbing because she didn’t know what Satori was thinking. Ana also realized that she equated lots of talking and actively giving opinions as productive contributions to the team. She became aware of her assumptions: that the best meetings were noisy ones where everyone had something to say while meetings full of silences were the least productive. And she realized that not everyone shared these assumptions and perceptions of meetings.

Don’t Judge: Ana saw that her previous judgments of Satori were unfounded and that she needed to explore this situation more and understand Satori a bit better.

Analyse: Taking time to research and discuss different styles of participating in meetings, Ana realized that not everyone saw her version of active participation as best practice. She came to understand that Satori might be staying silent as a sign of respect for her team members, giving them the floor so she could take time to listen and form her opinions and thoughts carefully. Ana realised that Satori did have her own opinions and ideas but preferred to think about them more carefully before sharing them with the group, for fear of wasting their time. This was Satori’s way of showing respect for them.

Persuade Yourself: Ana found that she could easily relate to the concept of respect for her team members because it was a value that she too held strongly. She wanted Satori to feel that she was being respected in return. Ana also realized that both her and Satori might behave in different ways but they both do so with the goal of making their meetings more effective. Seeing things from Satori’s perspective, Ana could now see the benefits of taking time to listen to others and giving her team members the space to speak without being interrupted. In working through this process, Ana also realised that interruptions in virtual meetings can disrupt the flow more so than in face-to-face meetings.

Try: Ana decided to try and give Satori more time and space during meetings to consider what is being said and to respond in her own time. It was still important to Ana to voice her opinions and ideas in meetings, but she resolved to slow down and listen more, remembering that this was a sign of respect for her team members. As she did this, she found herself interrupting less and seeing things through the eyes of her team members more.

In applying the ADAPT model, Ana was able to reconcile her differences with Satori and find a way to make their working relationship more effective.

Now it’s your turn:

Cross-cultural understanding in global business

Try ADAPT

How might Satori use the ADAPT model to deal with her conflict with Ana?

Go back to the model above and consider what she could do in the five stages to help her deal with her differences with Ana.

When communicating internationally, differences in our expectations and in the way we behave can cause communication issues that can sometimes affect our working relationships. By applying the ADAPT model, we can gain a different perspective and find ways to nurture the flexibility within us to become more effective international communicators.

References

The ADAPT model was taken from

Chong, C.S. (2018) Successful International Communication. Brighton: Pavilion Publishing.