Active Listening & Empathy: How to Communicate More Openly Across Cultures

Part of walking around in someone else’s skin, in their experience, requires knowing what their experience is in the first place.

This is where active listening comes in.

Why We Don’t Listen Well

Like empathy, itself, active listening is a conscious process.

You can’t leave your ears open and turn your brain off and assume that, just by nodding along, you are honing your listening skills.

Business relations are fueled by the powerful psychological tool of active listening.

Why?

Because active listening results in mutual understanding.

Think of your last face-to-face conversation.

Do you recall what your conversation partner spoke about? In how much detail could you relate what they said?

If your account recalls more of your side of the conversation than theirs, you may want to ask yourself two questions:

1) Are you talking more than listening?

2) Are you even listening when you’re not talking?

We are often distracted while in conversation, splitting our attention between thinking about what we will next share and listening.

Particularly when the dialogue is more of a debate, we tend to turn our ears off, as we’re more focused on formulating our response than we are in taking in another’s conflicting point of view.

Assumptions are made, because we’ve all heard the “talking points” before. So, whether or not the other is making a new and interesting point, we assume they’re rattling off old news.

The focus, then, is on winning the argument.

But the argument would be much more constructive if both parties opened their ears.

The Structure of Active Listening

  1. Focus
    When active listening, your focus should be on the speaker.
    Put down your phone, look directly at the speaker, turn the part of you off that is already formulating your argument, and really listen to what the speaker is saying.
    If you are multitasking or otherwise distracted, you aren’t giving your full attention and consideration to your partner.
  2. Repeat
    The speaker should also be aware that they’re being heard.
    One way to show you’re listening is to repeat what the speaker has said back to them in a way that recounts what you’ve picked up.
    For instance, the speaker is sharing a personal issue with you. After listening to their issue in its entirety without interrupting, you might respond, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re saying…” followed by a summary of what you’ve been told.
    You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying; but in reformulating what you’ve heard in your own words, you are validating their perspective in that you’ve listened with focus and fully understood them.
    It also helps you, as the listener, switch perspective.
    Sometimes you’ll find your own cultural framework has made you misinterpret something.
    By repeating, the speaker can see that you didn’t quite understand them and clear up their perspective, making this communication more effective.
  3. Open Up
    When in cultural conflict, one is often defensive and refuses to see their opponent’s situational perspective.
    Our natural instinct is to then not listen at all and only to have our voices heard.
    We lash out and might even get personal, which is not effective in bridging the divide.
    Active listening combats that, making both parties feel heard and allowing people to open up.
    A solution is more likely to be arrived at through active listening than through combative conflict.

Through empathy and the tools we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, you’ll be able to better communicate and deal with conflict cross-culturally.

Empathy in Action: An Exercise in Developing Empathy

Close your eyes, and picture this:

You are born into a relationship-based culture.

Relationships are the most important thing to you, because they are so integral to society.

Not only do they help you rise in the world, but they have your back when you fall.

Everything is tied to these relationships.

How do you see the world? How does this foundation impact your behavior, values, and norms?

Exercise in Empathy

The above was an exercise in empathy

Being able to put yourself into another’s shoes and imagine things from their perspective builds empathy – a tool that you can wield to your advantage.

Last week, we talked about how empathy is an essential personality trait when managing across cultures.

It’s not easily alterable or acquired; some are naturally more empathetic than others.

But like every trait that doesn’t come naturally, one can take actionable steps to develop it.

Developing empathy is an active, voluntary act.

And when working in a cross-cultural environment, you must be willing to volunteer this shift of perspective in order to adapt to your host culture.

We’ve talked a bit about the “monkey experience” in this blog and in my book I am the Monkey.

It’s one example of an exercise in empathy: viewing the world through the eyes of a monkey – and imagining others’ perceptions about you, the monkey, in turn.

It’s a radical shift in perspective, but a necessary exercise in understanding other individuals, other cultures, and better responding to differences in behaviors and values.

Another Exercise

You teach the third grade in New York City.

A new student enters your class. He just moved to America from the U.K. He is timid and visibly shaken. 

How do you sympathize with the student?

You comfort him, sharing with him that you understand his fear in this new situation.

But how do you demonstrate empathy?

Here’s how:

Picture yourself in his shoes: a young foreign child in a new school, new country, new culture.

Although you may never have been in this position yourself, drawing from your own similar well of experiences in unknown places, you may have a sense of what he’s feeling: the fear, the discomfort, the vulnerability, the confusion.

Sympathizing is the first step to creating a cross-cultural warmth of companionship and camaraderie; empathizing goes far deeper.

In this instance, you understand the child’s inner turmoil and are thereby better able to provide support and confidence through your words and actions.

With more information, you can make informed decisions about how to address his discomfort. And empathy gives you that information.

Visualization is the key to empathy – placing yourself into the untied shoes of that third grader, and viewing the big, scary world through his eyes.

This is empathy in action.

Next week, we’ll provide some examples of empathy in the workplace.

Seeking the “Why”: How Curiosity Can Assist Cross-Cultural Integration

When working across cultures, stress develops from inconsistencies in values, behaviors, and norms.

Anxiety accompanies culture shock and the changes in behavior required.

Do you handle stress and anxiety well? Then the transition of adapting to your new culture will happen faster and smoother than otherwise.

If you don’t, the next couple posts will show you how to ease the process.

Why Asking “Why?” is Important

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of acceptance.

Without understanding and acceptance, adapting to things you find random or illogical is next to impossible.

That’s why learning the “why” of behavior clears the way for adaption.

Consider you’re the monkey in the zoo. People are chucking peanuts at you, and you have no idea why.

Your handler feeds you often enough, and you’re not hungry. And yet, these humans are surrounding your home and lobbing peanuts at your feet.

“Seems irrational,” you think. “I have all the food I need. Why are these humans throwing more?”

Then again, you might try to see it from the human perspective by asking, “Why?”

Taking a seat to observe the humans, you – the monkey – try to work out the reasoning behind their behavior.

“Hmmm…” you think, “maybe they aren’t throwing peanuts to feed me; maybe they’re throwing them to observe me. I must be boring them by sleeping. They’re trying to encourage me to engage with them.”

As the monkey, through curiosity, you start to understand the rationale of the human; you understand that not all that is unfamiliar is irrational.

Survival Requires Rational Action

Humans are conditioned to act rationally within their environment and time period in order to survive.

Physicist D. Hillis writes in Cause and Effect:

“We like to organize events into chains of cause and effects that explain the consequences of our actions. […] This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The ultimate job of our nervous system is to make actionable decisions, and predicting the consequences of those decisions is important to our survival.”

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been rationalizing.

Society, etiquette, war.

All of these things developed out of some form of rationale or logic.

They were learned.

The question we’ll be asking is how does cultural rationale develop?

And answering that question – and those that follow – starts with curiosity and observation. We’ll talk about that more next week.

Active Tolerance: How to Be Tolerant Without Abandoning Your Values

“Business owners with a high tolerance for ambiguity can normally handle new and uncertain situations with relative ease, while business owners with a low tolerance for ambiguity would handle the same situations with more angst and unease.”

Bruce Barringer

In a nutshell, this is the reason to develop your ambiguity tolerance.

As we discussed in last week’s blog post, ambiguity tolerance will save you lots of headaches when navigating the differences and uncertainties of other cultures and events – in business and in personal relationships.

Being able to approach ambiguity in a calm and thoughtful manner prevents unnecessary angst, misunderstandings, and emotional conflict.

However, as with most things in life, tolerance is often easier said than done and when it conflicts with fundamental human values, in some cases tolerating such behaviors can make you complicit in them.

Which leads us to the question…

Is Cultural Tolerance Dangerous?

Objective tolerance of certain aspects of another culture can sometimes walk a thin line between morality and injustice.

There are two dangers:

  1. Accepting values/norms that are inhumane or immoral means accepting injustice.
  2. You may lose your own values and cultural identity when becoming too tolerant.

It may seem impossible then to be both simultaneously too tolerant and immoveable in your own beliefs.

But there’s a middle ground: you might avoid both by promoting active tolerance.

As part of the first strategy for cultural integration – acceptance – active tolerance allows you to preserve your own values/identity, refusing to accept said injustices, while also learning about attitudes and behaviors and seeking to understand why they historically exist instead of dismissing them outright.

Active Tolerance = Respect

Some might consider tolerance as a weakness, a failure to stand up for one’s own convictions.

However, active tolerance is a strength.

It doesn’t mean you must accept things that are fundamentally and morally at odds with your own foundational beliefs.

Active tolerance enables a person to demonstrate all possible respect and understanding for conflicting opinions/beliefs, while also defending one’s own.

Respect and restraint are the essence of active tolerance.

What ignites a wildfire of unconstructive conflict when two people of differing values meet?

It’s not the differences, themselves, but the disrespect and refusal to acknowledge other perspectives and life experiences as valid.

When you “accept” something or someone, their experience or culture, that doesn’t mean you share their experience or agree with their point of view necessarily; it means you are actively making an effort to understand their perspective and not to invalidate their own values, beliefs, and experiences.

You accept that they have theirs, and you respect that they don’t share yours.

When performed correctly, active tolerance doesn’t equate to agreement, but rather to digging to the roots of the many cultural baobabs in this world and attempting to understand them, as well as the personal experiences of the individual.

It’s a willingness to see the world from the branches of another’s tree, even for a moment. Climbing there might not change your own perspective or your baobab’s roots, but it certainly will produce more understanding and growth in your own.

Next week, we’ll lay out an anecdotal example of active tolerance in action.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.