How to communicate competently across cultures

Por Alexandra Montgomery, Asociada de Augere

Do you think that English as a common working language is enough to ensure your global team flourishes? Does your team often create misunderstanding rather than communicate effectively? Do you think the team may benefit from knowing how to navigate the intercultural context better?


The strength of multicultural teams is the diversity of their perspective, experience and way of operating. If only this came together in a constructive way, it would lead to breakthrough innovation and performance! In reality, this is far from easy: When we work with people from other cultures and backgrounds, our own reality and interpretations may be quite different to theirs. This is due to our own cultural lens, or cultural bias, that has us operating in a fairly limited range of perspectives and behaviours.

With the growth of globalisation, you might think that cultural background is becoming less relevant as people are blending cultures while studying, working and living abroad. Despite the increase of English as lingua franca in the business world, organisations find that their multicultural workforce faces some key challenges around communication that have to do as much with cultural styles as with language barriers. In the following you will find the main issues we see in our work with global (virtual) teams, cross-cultural leaders and expatriates, with some recommendations as to how to improve intercultural communication.



When people talk about culture, people often either minimise “ah, we are all humans, culture is not that important…” or tend to exaggerate “yes, lots of problems, she always does this…” Both extremes are unhelpful.


English as a global business language

English native speakers seem to have it easy. Or so it seems. Our experience shows that in multicultural groups, the non-native speakers get along better among themselves when speaking English than a native English speaker with a non-native. To some extent, this may be due to the (slight) disadvantage and inadequacy some non-natives feel in expressing their ideas. I remember a former French colleague, very well spoken and eloquent, who, when doing a presentation in English, would lose a lot of his impact and conviction.

  • Be patient and slow down. This goes for English native speakers, but also for people whose mother tongue is spoken relatively fast, e.g. Spanish and Italian.
  • Invest in language tools and courses that help you improve your pronunciation.
  • Use short, easily defined words and phrases, avoid jargon unless it is helpful for the professional context and beware of humour and jokes.
  • Recognise that language proficiency does not automatically lead to intercultural competence.
  • Allow enough time for people to talk to each other in their mother tongue so that they can explore and define what to say and paraphrase it back into the working language.


Having constructive feedback conversations is a challenge even in monocultural settings but can be a veritable minefield across cultures.


Stereotyping and ignoring differences

When people talk about culture, people often either minimise “ah, we are all humans, culture is not that important…” or tend to exaggerate “yes, lots of problems, she always does this…” Both extremes are unhelpful. Stereotypes are value judgements about a certain type of behaviour that we attribute to a specific group of people, such as “They don’t have a sense of humour” … because they seem very formal to you and hardly ever smile.

On the other hand, there are observable preferences among cultures which are shared by the majority of the cultural group. For example, when in Germanic countries you will observe that trains run on time (most of the time!), people turn up for meetings and try to adhere to a given timeframe. This reflects a cultural preference for punctuality. And you will of course encounter individual Germans that are unpunctual.

  • Practise recognising differences without falling into stereotypes. Be curious rather than judgemental.
  • Watch foreign-language films, first with subtitles and then without, ideally go with someone from that culture and have a conversation about it afterwards. Read books written by foreign authors, look for culture-specific heroes, legends and mythology.
  • Visit cultural events, ask your foreign colleagues about their country and traditions, what kind of music they listened to when they grew up. Find the spark that connects you.


Feedback Conversations

Having constructive feedback conversations is a challenge even in monocultural settings but can be a veritable minefield across cultures. A very useful cultural distinction to keep in mind here is direct-indirect communication. Direct communication means that you use clear and precise language to get your point across even at the risk of causing offence. In Germanic Northern European countries, being open and frank is seen to help interactions. People appreciate straightforwardness as they can respond better and learn how to improve. With a preference for indirect communication, such as in Arab, Asian and Latin American cultures, people appreciate and can read the meaning of gestures, silence, tone of voice and posture. How you say it counts more than what you say.

  • Recognise the difference between direct and indirect communication and your own preference – this may vary in different contexts, e.g. more direct at home and with friends and more indirect at work.
  • If you are very direct and dealing with someone indirect, slow down. Let them know you have a tendency to be direct but make a real effort to adapt. Consider the story of the Bangladeshi director who worked with Dutch volunteers. The Dutch had told her about their direct communication style and that they really had good intentions with what they were saying to her. The Bangladeshi director said, “Ok, I understand it is their way of talking, but in the evening I felt so sad. I couldn’t help wondering why they treated me so bad.”
  • Ask more open questions when dealing with indirectness. Questions starting with “How”, “for the sake of what”, “what/where/who/when” are useful to better understand the context and the other person’s position. Avoid “do you understand?” which may sound patronising, use “tell me, how do you see it?” or “what is your perspective on this?” Listen deeply.
  • If you prefer “saving face” or indirect communication (e.g. Middle East, Asian, some British English) you risk that people may not always be able to “read” what you are saying. Give concrete examples and say what behaviour/results you would like to see more of (feedforward).
  • If you find you are not getting through in a constructive way, seek advice from someone who is familiar with or closer to the culture than you are. When the Chinese project group of a multinational came together with their US counterparts, the Americans could not find a way to relay their differing product opinions without offending the Chinese, who became increasingly withdrawn. Only when the two groups were split up, Hongkong-Chinese who had more experience with “Western direct talk” mediated by showing the value of the US colleagues’ opinion to the Chinese and educating the US colleagues how they could reframe their suggestions without causing offence.


Humans have a tendency to seek emotional mirror responses and are uneasy with the opposite.


Participation and Generating Ideas

People from more egalitarian or individualistic cultures, such as the US and Australia, tend to speak up easily and express unfiltered ideas and opinions. More hierarchical or collectivist cultures (Asians but also some Mediterranean) tend to position themselves in relation to their peers and managers and may not speak up until a more senior person has expressed their opinion.

  • When generating ideas or feedback in a group, agree clear communication principles at the start. Go around the table (or video conference line) in a structured way, e.g. “now we do a round of out-of-the-box ideas”, “clarifying questions only”, “what’s good about it”, “what concerns me about it” etc.
  • If uneven contribution is a problem, have people think to themselves for a minute and jot down their ideas rather than thinking out aloud. And ask them to build on each other’s ideas.
  • Latins may be comfortable with more interruptions and overlapping conversations than people with a linear preference such as Germanics. Again, establish clear principles with your team members at the outset and revise regularly.
  • Understand that silence means different things in different cultural contexts. US Americans tend to find silence difficult whereas others (e.g. Finns, Japanese) will be using silence to think.


Managing Conflict

Another area of difference in cross-cultural teams is comfort with public disagreement. People with preference for group harmony and “saving face” (Asians) will be challenged by open confrontation as it signals collective failure. In other cultures, openly expressed respectful criticism is a sign of trust and progress. The range of emotional expression is also culturally conditioned, as is the use of “I” as opposed to “We”. It is important to note that humans have a tendency to seek emotional mirror responses and are uneasy with the opposite. Observing without judging is key here.

  • The expressive person (Latin and Middle Eastern) seeks a direct emotional response, they want to hear or sense: “I share your feeling about this.” Emotions are used to persuade in arguments and negotiations. Showing emotions does not mean that the person’s decision-making process is purely emotional!
  • The neutral-expression person (Asians, Northern/Eastern Europeans) will seek an emotionally more indirect response, such as: “I agree with you and can support this.” They still feel the emotion but it does not show as easily on the outside.
  • To synergise diversity, think “perspective” not “position”. This means that you need to create a third “neutral” space and have people agree on a purpose, listen deeply to each other’s perspective and suspend all assumptions. Say “In my cultural context, we would do/see it like this – how about in yours?” Ask everyone to offer pros and cons on a particular course of action. Generate a different perspective that could encompass the positives of the individual contributions or opinions.
  • Assign a “devil’s advocate” whose remit is to challenge the different propositions. The role can be rotated across agenda items or across meetings, so everyone becomes more comfortable in it.


These are all common areas where intercultural conflict shows up. We have given some tips and recommendations to improve communication in Global Teams, however, there is no quick fix. The Golden Rule of Intercultural Communication is “seek to understand the other rather than define the other”, which is a mindset that needs to be practised consciously over time. Observing, deep listening, asking culturally sensitive questions, acquiring culture-specific knowledge and cultural self-awareness are essential ingredients for developing intercultural communication skills.


Comunicación no violenta en el entorno de trabajo

Por Alexandra Montgomery, Asociada de Augere

El 2 de octubre, cumpleaños de Mahatma Gandhi, se celebra el Día Internacional de la No Violencia. Incluso si no vives en un lugar plagado de conflictos, te sorprenderías de la frecuencia con la que interactuamos en el lugar de trabajo de una manera poco respetuosa. Algunas organizaciones realmente parecen zonas de conflicto. No hace falta decir que la comunicación hostil es muy perjudicial para el resultado de negocio, la capacidad innovadora y la retención de talento clave.

El psicólogo y mediador de conflictos de los Estados Unidos, ya fallecido, Marshall Rosenberg, acuñó el término comunicación no violenta. Él señaló que todo lo que decimos o hacemos es un intento de satisfacer nuestras necesidades, a menudo en un nivel completamente inconsciente. Siempre que hay un conflicto, es probable que una persona esté tratando de satisfacer sus necesidades utilizando medios “violentos” (enérgicos), es decir, induciendo miedo, vergüenza, culpa, etc. Es posible que hayas escuchado a algún manager decir a uno de sus colaboradores con alto potencial «hubiera esperado más de ti», por ejemplo.

Rosenberg señaló que la comunicación resulta más efectiva cuando observamos y entendemos nuestras propias necesidades y las de los demás, evitamos el juicio y desarrollamos estrategias auténticas para satisfacer nuestras necesidades y las de los demás. Desarrolló un proceso de cuatro niveles para comunicarse de manera no violenta, compasiva y eficaz: observación, sentimientos, necesidades y peticiones.


Observar sin juzgar es la forma más elevada de inteligencia humana.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Como seres humanos estamos programados para evaluar constantemente nuestro entorno y se requiere esfuerzo y práctica conscientes para observar los hechos evitando el juicio. Los hechos observables son lo que pueden ser vistos por quienes están presentes, por ejemplo, una persona se presenta en una reunión 10 minutos tarde o un miembro del equipo habla brevemente sobre un retraso de un hito de alto nivel sin dar detalles. Los juicios sobre el hecho observable podrían ser: «eres grosero porque llegas siempre tarde y haces que todos tengan que esperarte» o «¿estás seguro de que puedes manejar este proyecto?». En cambio, si observa más, incluidas las posturas corporales y la expresión facial, y usa frases aclaratorias, como por ejemplo, «lo que estoy escuchando es … ¿es correcto?» Observar sin juzgar es un paso crucial para la comunicación efectiva y es una habilidad que se puede desarrollar.


Si no estamos acostumbrados a identificar y expresar nuestros sentimientos, a menudo podemos confundir el sentimiento con el pensamiento: «siento que no estás escuchando …», lo que resulta ser una racionalización. Los sentimientos racionalizados pueden aparecer en las siguientes expresiones: abandonado, traicionado, hostigado, rechazado, sobrecargado de trabajo, intimidado, condenado, manipulado, menospreciado, provocado, etc. Estos no son sentimientos sino interpretaciones racionales de los sentimientos.

¿Cómo puedes descubrir lo que estás sintiendo? Una clasificación útil de las emociones básicas, según el psicólogo Paul Ekman, está en el espectro de feliz, triste, enojada, temerosa, sorprendida y disgustada. Las emociones están directamente conectadas al alcance de nuestras necesidades. Algunos ejemplos de sentimientos que surgen cuando se satisfacen nuestras necesidades son: feliz, contento, emocionado, orgulloso, etc. Cuando no se satisfacen nuestras necesidades, podemos sentirnos enojados, molestos, resentidos, tristes, solos, avergonzados, temerosos, ansiosos, asqueados, etc.

Las emociones también aparecen como sensaciones corporales, por lo que te resultará útil sintonizar tu cuerpo para identificar cualquier tensión muscular, pesadez o cambios de temperatura. En coaching, a menudo utilizamos técnicas de atención plena o mindfulness, respiración y movimiento para trabajar con el cuerpo y aumentar así la autoconciencia y gestión de las emociones.

Toma consciencia del poder del lenguaje: date cuenta de la sensación que la observación está provocando en ti, por ejemplo. «cuando te pregunto por xyz y no me das los detalles (observación), no estoy seguro de cómo nos va con el proyecto (sentimiento)«.


Identificar las necesidades en la raíz de los sentimientos. Ejemplos de necesidades universales son la seguridad, la conexión, el logro … En el lugar de trabajo podemos encontrar la necesidad de “ser escuchados y observados”, “necesitar autonomía para hacer el trabajo”, “pertenecer a un grupo de personas afín”. En el contexto de la comunicación, es importante explorar tus propias necesidades y las de los demás para alcanzar un resultado positivo. Cuando las necesidades se expresan a través de opiniones y evaluaciones es más probable que otros se pongan a la defensiva o contra argumenten. Decidir prematuramente y sostener una posición, supone establecer qué crees que debería suceder y conduce a una toma de decisiones poco óptimas. En su lugar, expresa tus necesidades directamente:

“Cuando te pregunto por el proyecto xyz y no me das los detalles (observación), no estoy seguro de cómo nos va con el proyecto (sentimiento) y necesitaría más información para poder confiar en que volveremos a los estándares (necesidad)”.


Las peticiones efectivas crean un compromiso y una comprensión compartida por parte de la otra persona y son específicas, claras e inequívocas. Cuando realices una petición y la otra persona no cumpla con el requerimiento has de estar preparado para establecer límites o hacer un seguimiento de sus resultados. Exigir es insistir en lo que quieres saber, ya que puedes no tener opinión o incluso no poder decir que no, por ejemplo, en las estructuras de poder desigual.

“Cuando le pregunto sobre el proyecto xyz y no me das los detalles (observación), no estoy seguro de cómo nos va con el proyecto (sentimiento) y necesitaría más información para poder confiar en que volveremos a los estándares (necesario). ¿Podrías contarme con más detalle al final de la mañana, tu plan para las próximas 2 semanas, por favor? (petición)».

Además de expresar tus propios sentimientos y necesidades y hacer peticiones, puede haber ocasiones en las que necesites conocer las necesidades de otras personas para co-crear una mejor solución. El proceso es el mismo y funciona de la siguiente manera:

Observando: Cuando haces / dices _________________ (indica tu observación).

Sentimiento: te sientes ______________________ (adivina la emoción del otro).

Necesidad: porque necesitas _____________________ (adivina la necesidad del otro).

Petición: ¿Te gustaría que yo / él / ella, etc., __________________ (acción específica)?

La Comunicación No Violenta es una gran herramienta para en el entorno de trabajo y esencial para líderes y coaches. Si bien se necesita práctica para sustituir nuestros viejos hábitos de comunicación con formas de interacción más conscientes, se ha aplicado en muchos contextos organizativos, políticos, educativos y familiares para lograr un efecto poderoso.