How Effective Leaders Communicate Across Cultures

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I often encounter talented professionals, who have all the traits and skills to lead effectively, who tell me that working with people from a different , and frequently in a foreign language, is a key obstacle to their success. I get it. I have spent most of my professional career outside my native country of , and I support both Spanish- and English-speaking leaders as a communications specialist. But in our globalizing world, professionals need to be ready to communicate with people whose native language and culture is different from their own.

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Even professionals who have achieved a substantial level of fluency in the relevant foreign language may still lack confidence in their ability to be understood or to be taken seriously. They’re afraid of accidentally offending someone, misinterpreting or misusing colloquial terms and phrases, or sounding out of touch.

Connecting with people across cultural and language divides takes practice. Here is what I have found to help—from my own personal experiences, as well as what I have seen work for many of my clients.

Listen first

Making sense of your audience’s values, desires, goals, opinions, prejudices, etc. is never an easy task, and when cultural differences or language barriers are in the mix, it becomes even more difficult. To succeed, you need to start listening. Really listening.

We can think of three basic levels of listening, based on where you put your as you engage with the other person:

1. Self-listening. We all have a tendency to be here, as most of the time our focus is on ourselves. But this is not actual listening. It is more like having a sense of what the other person is saying while waiting for our turn to talk. If you find yourself thinking about what you will say next while the other person is talking, you are probably at this level.

2. Intent-listening. Here you are intensely focused on what the other person is saying. You are not distracted by your own thoughts about the past or the future. Your own ideas don’t get in the way of you hearing the other person. At this level, you start connecting with the other person.

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3. Deep-listening. This is the level that helps us truly connect with others. You are not only paying attention to what others say but also what they mean—what they do not say, how they express their emotions, what their tells you. It’s about giving the other person your full cognitive and emotional attention in a non-judgmental way and seeing what happens. Deep-listening does not mean you have to be silent. Be curious, ask questions. Open your mind and learn as much as possible about the other person.

Moving from self-listening toward deep-listening requires practice. It is hard work, often exhausting. But it pays off. As you increase your capacity to focus on the other person, you will have a fuller understanding of what he or she actually means. Over time, you may find that this increased level of attention allows you to see things others do not. When people interact with others in a familiar context, they often do it mechanically and may miss what the other person is actually trying to communicate. When you are in a “foreign” environment, you bring a different perspective, see things through a different lens, and appreciate what others do not even register. Others may come to value this and seek out your perspective more and more.

Build up your personal communication team

Journalists have editors. Politicians have speechwriters. You are being asked to communicate with people who do not share your background, and perhaps to do so in a second or third language. Why not ask for some help?

If you are in a formal leadership position and have the budget, you could hire a communications advisor. But if not, you can do it in other ways. Share your writing with a native speaker who you know is a good communicator. Ask someone who understands the local culture to help you rehearse your presentation. Truly, there is nothing wrong with enlisting a little bit of help. Actually, there is a lot right about it. Your communication will be clear; you won’t be asking your audience to decipher your messages for you. They will appreciate it.

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For example, one of my previous bosses had a role that required extensive traveling to meet with clients. Even though most clients spoke English (as did she), before visiting a country for the first time, she would seek out staff from that place working at the global headquarters in , DC. She would ask about both the local culture and the business environment. Once in the country, she would do the same with local staff before meeting with clients. This practice helped her gain an initial understanding of the clients’ backgrounds.

Generally speaking, the ideas described here on how to engage and communicate across cultures are not that different from those to connect with people from your own culture. However, when engaging across cultures, you may not be familiar with the way others see things and express themselves. You have to be even more aware of the importance of listening, being curious, and asking questions. Effective leadership communication across cultures and languages is possible, but it requires time and effort. 

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