Active listening as an essential intercultural skill

Does this situation sound familiar? You are sitting on your weekly team conference call trying to explain an issue with a supplier that may have an impact on your project deadline. You can hear one of your colleagues typing, you can see your colleague across the office tipped back in their chair and you are fairly sure their mind is elsewhere. Your team manager seems to be sure of the solution before you have finished explaining the problem and has interrupted you several times already. Nobody is really listening to you and so it is not entirely surprising that later that afternoon you receive a couple of emails asking you about the situation with the supplier and your manager calls to ask if you have any doubts about reaching the deadline.

What happens when we are not listened to?

The implications of not being listened to go deeper than the frustrations of miscommunication, having to repeat the message or issues not being fully addressed.  When we sense we haven’t been listened to we can lose rapport and feel that we or our views and ideas are not valued. And this can lead to a loss of trust and a lack of engagement.  At worst, frustration and misunderstanding can escalate and turn into conflict – but actively listening and trying to understand the other’s frustrations can help to diffuse potentially conflictive situations.

Listening across cultures

Listening skills are essential in any kind of interpersonal interaction but when we are faced with language and cultural challenges, the need to pay full attention to what is really being said becomes paramount. We may need to work harder to understand different accents, speech patterns and use of language and to dispel our usual interpretations of silence, interruptions or body language.

We make assumptions about the meanings of certain words and phrases and don’t always realise that they can have slightly different meanings or connotations.  For example, British speakers of English tend to use fewer absolute adjectives than their counterparts in the US and so an American listening to their British colleague may mistakenly infer that their colleague is not enthusiastic about the project because they haven’t sounded as positive as expected. 

Listen beyond words

The key to being a really good listener is not only listening to what is said but also to what is not said. The ability to read between the lines and tune in to non-verbal signals such as facial expressions and body language.  In some cultures and parts of the world where saving face is important, saying ‘no’ particularly to someone in authority is very difficult.  If you really want to hear the ‘yes’ you need to listen for the subtext and tune into the speaker’s body language. 

Silence is also a powerful tool for both speaker and listener.  In some east Asian cultures, for example, silence is a sign of respect for what has been said and it would seem rude to jump straight in as soon as the other person has finished.  It’s also important to remember colleagues who speak your language as their second or even third language sometime need longer to formulate what they want to say and for them pausing is thinking time rather than a signal for you to start talking.

“There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.” Rumi

Listen actively

Active listening means, as it suggests, listening actively and attentively.  It involves concentrating fully on what is being said rather than just hearing in passing and it requires listening with all our senses. 

The good news is that active listening is a skill that can be developed and improved.  Monitor yourself next time you are on that weekly conference call and your colleagues are speaking.  See if you adhere to these listening guidelines.       

  • Don’t assume you already know what is being said
  • Listen to understand rather than just waiting for your turn to share a similar experience or give your opinion
  • Don’t interrupt and pause before responding – the person speaking may still have more to say
  • Tune in to the speaker’s body language and nod or smile or make other appropriate signals to show that you are listening
  • Ask careful questions, paraphrase and check to make sure you have fully understood

Remember that if you are developing relationships with international colleagues or partners active listening is one of the most important intercultural skills you can develop.

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.  We listen to reply.” Stephen Covey

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