Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

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