Communicating Globally

The other week I was on a conference call with colleagues in Japan, Australia and Korea. We all worked hard to understand what each other was saying, including the meaning of what was said. It’s a bit of a challenge, and I greatly appreciated how my one colleague summed it: “Can I just straighten up my understanding?”

She didn’t suggest that we weren’t explaining our points well, but rather, that she wanted to be sure she understood. It suggested that she understood at least some of what was being said and that she also wanted to clarify some points.

The goal, of course, was to make sure we were aligned in what we were saying and understanding. As a result of this conversation, when I interact with others, I’m trying harder to straighten my understanding.

I’m focused on this topic because the global world is becoming smaller. A recent study about competitive advantage listed global thinking as one of the top 5 leadership qualities. Global thinking is defined as the ability to intuitively recognize the signals you get from others so you can effectively communicate with people from around the world.

I also am at a global meeting with colleagues from about 60 countries. I definitely need to ensure I’m straightening up my understanding and not confusing anyone else.

Simplifying language is a key to increasing understanding. I don’t need to speak louder, but I do need to avoid slang and idioms. And I need to use simpler words that have universal context.

Another way to increase understanding is to simply get to know my colleagues. Each day there is time for personal conversations. Unlike in the U.S. where we always seem to quickly want to get to “what can I do for you and “what can you do for me”, these conversations are about building rapport and finding common ground. Yes, I’ll ask what their role is at work, but I also want to know about their outside interests and their families. I ask open-ended questions and look forward to learning more about each person I meet.

The meeting also is wonderful because we are face-to-face, which always increases understanding. Being able to read a person’s confusion means I have to try harder. I’ll have many small conversations in quiet corners to straighten up my understanding.

Each culture is different and, if possible, it’s good to know what is accepted and not. I’m aware of personal space, air kisses and handing out business cards with the details facing the recipient. If I’m not clear, I ask.    

Straightening your understanding is good no matter where your colleagues reside.