The skills of the international communicator

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Chia Suan Chong
By Chia Suan Chong
Excedo blog in Breaking global business barriers May, 2019

After demonstrating excellent leadership skills with his Danish team, William was relocated to his company’s headquarters in Tokyo. Before arriving in Japan, William researched Japan online and learned that he should give and receive business cards with both hands, bring gifts when visiting clients and avoid the number four as well as some other similar tips. He felt ready for his transfer to Japan.

For his first meeting with his Japanese team, William decided to conduct a dynamic brainstorming session. William expected a lively discussion but instead met with an uncomfortable silence. He assumed this was due to their unfamiliarity with him as their new manager, but figured that things would improve once they got to know him.

In William’s second week, he was keen to highlight the importance of learning from mistakes. After all, you need to experience some level of failure in order to succeed. He pointed out some things two individuals had done the previous week which had indirectly led to delays. However, instead of a constructive discussion on how such delays can be avoided in the future, he was met with another awkward silence.

After several weeks of trying to implement what William thought was good team practices, he realized that he was not bonding with his team as he had expected. He realized that intercultural competence was not merely about learning lists of do’s and don'ts he’d found online and that he needed to work on his skills as an international communicator.

Amongst the key future work skills identified by The Institute of the Future, cross-cultural competency (a.k.a. intercultural skills) is reported to be one of the top ten skills required in the future workforce.

But what does intercultural competency involve?

This topic has been explored across several disciplines, and the theoretical constructs of intercultural competence vary and often overlap. In my book, Successful International Communication (Chong, 2018), I draw on different frameworks and encapsulate intercultural competence in the following 10 skills of a successful international communicator:

We often view the world from the perspective of our own attitudes and values, and these in turn drive our behaviour. Like William, we sometimes take our norms for granted until we are confronted with behaviour different to our own. The skill to reflect and reconsider our norms can help us become more self-aware, and such awareness is fundamental to intercultural communication.

William could understand his new context better by spending some time with his team members and finding out more about their corporate culture and their team culture. By getting to know the people we interact with, we become aware of other ways of doing and seeing things. And this process starts with an inherent curiosity.

  1. Self-Awareness and the ability to reflect
    We often view the world from the perspective of our own attitudes and values, and these in turn drive our behaviour. Like William, we sometimes take our norms for granted until we are confronted with behaviour different to our own. The skill to reflect and reconsider our norms can help us become more self-aware, and such awareness is fundamental to intercultural communication.

  2. Curiosity
    William could understand his new context better by spending some time with his team members and finding out more about their corporate culture and their team culture. By getting to know the people we interact with, we become aware of other ways of doing and seeing things. And this process starts with an inherent curiosity.

  3. Mindfulness and perceptiveness
    The silence William encountered in his meetings can say a lot: silence could mean ‘We have nothing to say’, but it also could mean ‘We’re taking all this new information in’, ‘We’ve not been given time to prepare’, or ‘We don’t feel confident speaking in this environment’,or ‘We are really uncomfortable with this process’, and more. By being mindful of what was going on behind the silence, William could be better able to respond to his team’s reactions to his ideas.

  4. Refraining from judgments
    While it is easy to judge people based on our own norms and attitudes, this can result in misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. Rather than assuming that his team is uncooperative or resistant to creative ideas, William needs to be willing to see things from a different angle and be open-minded to practices and approaches which are new and unfamiliar.

  5. Patience and tolerance for ambiguity
    When William was in his previous work environment, behaviours and situations made sense to him – they were familiar and predictable, and he felt in control. When things are unfamiliar, complex and unpredictable, it can feel uncomfortable and disconcerting. Building a tolerance for ambiguity alongside a patient and respectful attitude is vital to gaining a deeper understanding of our international communication.

  6. Emotional strength
    Intercultural communication can present us with difficulties and challenges that can leave us feeling stressed, frustrated and exhausted. Resilience can help William to embrace failure and learn from his mistakes as he works to resolve the intercultural differences between him and his team.

  7. Interpersonal skills
    Interpersonal skills include skills such as building trust and rapport, influencing and persuading, conflict management, giving and receiving feedback, and active listening - and an awareness that how these skills are successfully realized might differ from culture to culture.

    William for instance might see giving feedback publicly as a collective learning opportunity for the whole team, while his team members might see this as shaming individuals who have made mistakes and causing them to lose face. Developing an understanding of how these interpersonal skills translate from one culture to another is a success factor for international communication.

  8. Communication skills
    When speaking to his team, William needs to be aware of the communication conventions involved, ensure he is clear and transparent, and detect misunderstandings when they occur. Good communication skills go beyond having good language skills and involve effective strategies that help achieve mutual understanding.

  9. Flexibility and adaptability
    The ability and willingness to accommodate and adapt to different behaviours is crucial to making intercultural relationships work. While this might come naturally for some, flexibility and adaptability are also skills which can be developed through practice and experience.

  10. Sense of identity and objectives
    Although William is keen to adapt to his new team members’ working practices, he does not want to lose himself in the process. However, adapting does not have to result in a loss in our identity. William needs to understand that there are different versions of himself – e.g. the William who is a son to his parents, the William who is a joker among his friends from school, and the William who is a team leader in the workplace.

    When adapting in an intercultural interaction, William will need to work on finding a version of himself that achieves the objectives of that scenario. He will still be William and remain true to himself, his values and beliefs. In retaining his sense of identity, his team will therefore be able to benefit from the different approaches and practices that William brings with him.

Excedo global language learning

Building the skills of intercultural competence

Whether we are part of a virtual team of multinational members, communicating with customers from a different country,  or working with an external consultant, we often find ourselves communicating internationally with people who might not share our norms and beliefs.

Building the skills of intercultural competence can ensure that we are able to effectively communicate with those who might, at first, seem different from us.

By being interculturally competent, we can better connect with the rest of the world.

 

To learn more about improving your intercultural skills, join us for our upcoming webinar on soft skills for global business.

 

Bibliography

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