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Cultural Roadblocks: 3 Simple Steps to Avoid Misunderstandings & Conflict

Whether you work in an international organization or simply have colleagues from diverse backgrounds, intercultural misunderstandings can happen. In this blog post, based on a webinar from Kristina Albert, Leadership Coach & Business Advisor, you’ll learn three simple steps to help you understand cultural differences, create cultural awareness, and avoid misunderstandings, problems, and conflict.

Many intercultural misunderstandings are caused by a closed mindset, creating a mental block. When we have a closed perspective, we allow assumptions, judgements, and stereotypes to dominate our thoughts. Ultimately, this affects how we interact with others and can cause unintentional miscommunications and frustrating situations. The first step to overcoming intercultural barriers is building awareness. Now, this seems incredibly simple, but it is rare that we truly reflect on and understand why we do or say the things we do. You have to ask yourself, “Why do I behave in this certain way? How do people in my culture disagree or show respect?” Reflecting on your thought processes, actions, and cultural expectations can help you realize that people from different walks of life have different perspectives and, thus, may interpret your actions and words differently. Once you fully understand your attitudes, values, and beliefs, you become more open to different viewpoints and cultures.

It’s not uncommon to find ourselves in situations where we feel misunderstood, not heard, or even frustrated when communicating with someone from a different background. An easy way to avoid this exasperation is by practicing active listening. Active listening means listening with all your senses, including verbal and non-verbal messages, such as  eye contact and body language. Showing the people you are interacting with that you are making a true  effort to listen and understand them can go a long way in avoiding conflict or misunderstanding. Another way to show genuine interest and strengthen communication is by asking intentional questions. Intentional questions, such as asking about a person’s background or job, can help you learn more about the other person and understand their actions and behaviors. Such questions can also broaden your perspective and facilitate a more open dialogue about differences or expectations. 

The second step of navigating cross-cultural interactions is understanding the do’s and dont’s. Wherever we are in the world, there’s an unspoken set of rules or expectations that guide how we act and interact with others. In the modern world, we face more people from different backgrounds who may have different values or beliefs that guide their behaviors, and therefore we must avoid assumptions. Often, people hear what they expect to hear due to assumptions, stereotyping, or prejudices, but always give the benefit of the doubt. We must recognize that certain behaviors might be part of the company or individual’s culture. We all have assumptions about how to do things —  assumptions that have been influenced by our culture and that we’ve amassed over our lifetimes. Cultural etiquette, or the codes of behavior that rule different cultures, can be tricky to navigate and requires some compromise. How you want to be treated may not be the same as what someone from another culture wants, and it might take time to drop the “golden rule” of treating others how you want to be treated. Instead, utilize the idea of treating others how they wish to be treated by respecting their cultural etiquette. 

The final step to collaborating effectively across cultures is finding common ground. Instead of focusing on cultural differences, try to find similarities and leverage them to bridge gaps and earn trust. Try to make a personal connection around everyday work experiences or even more basic things like food or hobbies. Get to know each other as individuals rather than as representatives of your respective cultures or subgroups — we are far more similar than we are different, regardless of where we come from. Showing you are genuinely interested in the other person is an excellent way to break down barriers between groups. . If you’re still struggling to find a standard connection with someone, you can always fall back on shared values and objectives. Having a shared purpose as to what your mission or goal is will allow your working relationship to be more open to dialogue, which altogether can help you overcome any cultural barriers in the workplace and establish long-lasting and fruitful relationships.

Anyone can learn how to interact with other cultures successfully and effectively, but ultimately you must always be open-minded and actively listening. Cross-cultural interactions can be easy when you’re intentional with your verbal and non-verbal communication. 

This blog is inspired by WiT Webinar ‘Cultural Roadblocks: 3 Simple Steps to Avoid Misunderstandings & Conflict.’ Watch it on WiT’s Webinar archive HERE



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