July 15, 2024
When “Yes” Means “No” – Active Listening For Hidden Cultural Cues

Many companies’ employee handbooks have a code of conduct outlining acceptable dress, phone use and other rules. But many global teams work together on a daily basis without a common code of communication. This code is created by the team and agreed upon by all; it might include response times (“I respond to e-mails within 48 hours”) or how to deal with issues (“I will bring up any issue in person or by phone and within one day). Setting these norms as a group allows for all voices to be considered and prevents time wasted in conflict. One of the key aspects of a code of communication across cultures is listening.

When I think about the keys to a successful global business, the obvious best practices jump out at me like trust, good communication and team work. But somewhere in a quiet corner lays the most important and often ignored key-listening.

So many of our connections with colleagues come in whispers, subtle but important messages that are easy to miss if we do not listen attentively. Moreover, all forms of listening are not alike. Sometimes we listen more passively, taking in what the other is saying and giving them our attention. At other times we listen actively, seeking out what is not being said and reading between the lines.

Individuals from some cultures find this distressing. Clients have said to me, “I don’t want to have to figure all that out! I don’t have time. If someone can’t just come out and say something, that’s their issue.”

I certainly empathize with this frustration; the art of reading between the lines can be tricky, especially for those who prefer a more direct style. The best way to learn this skill is to see the benefit. I have rarely taught a cross-cultural class where someone hasn’t said, “This will help me in my marriage or with my kids!” I too use my cultural training to really hear my fianc√© at a heightened level. We ask each other questions and take all forms of communication into account.

No matter how direct or indirect you are, active listening always brings good results. Even people from direct cultures use non-verbal communication, subtlety and other more indirect cues to get their message across. When you listen actively, you are much more likely to have successful communication with fewer misunderstandings.

Cultures that fall toward the more indirect side of the spectrum include China, Japan, Korea, India, sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Latin America and more. Large portions of the world communicate in this way and it pays to be tuned in, especially in a business environment.

You might be wondering by now how you know if you are receiving “hidden” messages from indirect cultures. You start by playing detective. Here are some things to do and look for:

–Start by bumping your conscious listening up to at least one level above your norm. When you have a conversation with a friend from your own culture or background, you can listen a little more passively because the cues are familiar and known. When listening to someone from another culture, tell yourself to be extra alert.

–Widen your spectrum of what “communication” is. For example, if someone does not call you back in response to a favor you asked, is this communication? Yes, it might be. That person might feel it is best to spare you from a direct, embarrassing “no” by not returning your call.

–Watch for open ended questions that seem to come out of the blue. For example, your colleague all of a sudden says, “So, what did you think of Mr. Smith’s new procedures?” They might have something to say but are waiting for you to start the conversation.

–Watch for uncomfortable body language in the other person. If you ask for a favor and get shifting around, wrinkled brow, downcast look or other signs of discomfort, consider altering your request gracefully.

–Listen for trailing off at the ends of sentences, hesitant voice tone and other vague responses.

–Ask leading questions to probe for more information rather than open-ended questions.

–Be aware that people from indirect cultures might use third parties to communicate sensitive or difficult issues; this is in their view another way of saving you from the embarrassment of direct confrontation.

Active listening brightens the colors of the world around you. When you pay more attention you get more out of life and your relationships. In a business environment, especially in negotiations, listening can make or break the deal. I wish you well in your search for cultural whispers.

© Vicki Flier 2007 All Rights Reserved