Our potential to connect with a wide diversity of people across the world is vast and with it comes exciting opportunities to discover ways of achieving peaceful inter-dependence – arguably the most important task facing us all.
As mentors on Mosaic’s International Leadership programme you are poised to inspire the leaders of tomorrow, to help build bridges across cultures and continents, to celebrate and learn from differences and promote aspiration and co-operation by being curious and caring.
Communicating across cultures can be challenging and needs a thoughtful and alert approach. I have become deeply aware that communicating with people from different cultures to my own can be full of conscious, but mostly unconscious, differences in relation to cultural norms of working practices, voice tone, attitude to time, use of body language and so on.
This can result in communication breakdowns, misunderstandings and conflict, even if the conscious intent of both parties is well meaning! For instance, one experience which stays with me is when I was mentoring a young Asian woman and noticed that whenever I asked her a question or explained something she looked at the floor and seemed to switch off.
I was confused and frustrated – I didn’t know if I was being useful or that my messages were reaching her. I shared these worries with a colleague and decided I needed to share my concerns with my mentee. She looked up in relief and explained she’d been brought up not to look at elders/people in positions of authority when they spoke to her, and that she was very much enjoying our sessions and finding them very useful.
Key guidelines for mentoring people from different backgrounds to your own:
- Suspend pre-conceived ideas – always question assumptions whilst also listening with care and curiosity.
- Remember that cultural norms may not apply to the behaviour of any particular individual – we are all shaped by many different influences – our culture, our family, our education, and our personalities – these are more complicated than any cultural norm could suggest. Check your interpretations if you are uncertain what is meant.
- Don’t assume that there is one right way (yours!) to communicate. Accept that your own background influences your perceptions. Keep questioning your assumptions about the ‘right way’ to communicate. For example, think about your body language; postures that indicate receptivity in one culture might indicate aggressiveness in another, e.g. the use of eye contact.
- Don’t assume that breakdowns in communication occur because other people are on the wrong track. Search for ways to make the communication work, rather than searching for who is to blame for the breakdown.
- Double-check that the other person has understood you by saying something like: “I hope I’ve made myself clear so far. Perhaps you could tell me in your own words what you’ve understood me to say”.
- If you are unsure how your mentor is feeling ask them early on in the conversation. For instance, you may be hearing anger in their higher volume speech when in fact the person is actually expressing enthusiasm.
- Once trust is established try to talk openly about how your different cultural backgrounds might be causing communication to break down between you.
- Recognise the extra strain imposed by language barriers and make allowances for a person from a different culture to your own, without appearing patronising.