A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.

4 responses to “A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

  1. Reducing number of participants in a meeting is a good way to minimize miscommunication. Too many meetings are bloated in participation

  2. Just a few days earlier, Jared Spool gave much the same advice. He included a nice “three questions” format for the quick personal minutes at the end of the meeting. Each person responds and they have 60 seconds.

    * What was the big idea?
    * What was your biggest surprise?
    * What’s your big question?

    I like it.

    View story at Medium.com

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