Do you ever get introduced to someone at a lunch meeting or a networking event, and before the conversation is over you forget the person’s name? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. The average person remembers between 25% and 50% of what he or she hears, according to most studies. That means that when you talk to your boss, your colleagues or customers, they are likely to retain less than half of the conversation.
It’s not so much that we have poor memories. Rather, it’s that most of us simply don’t listen well. To compound matters, the diversity of today’s workforce only makes listening more difficult. In many workplaces it’s not uncommon for work teams to consist of people from several countries or ethnic backgrounds. Even if everyone speaks English, some might have different dialects and speech patterns. Maximizing performance in such a multicultural work environment means learning to listen.
Not casual, passive listening the way we husbands sometimes do with our wives. No, I’m talking about listening hard, what experts call active listening — the way you would listen for your raffle number when the prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to the Côte d’Azur. Communicating well across different cultures requires listening closely enough to not only hear the words but to grasp true meaning. By doing so, you enhance productivity and add to your ability to communicate without conflict or misunderstanding.
Some call this sort of multicultural interaction “listening with empathy.” Janet Reid, a multicultural expert and managing partner of Global Novations, which does corporate diversity consulting, describes it as listening to connect with a person’s feelings and thoughts. To do so, you not only have to train your ear, she says, you have to build your multicultural muscle. “You have to slow down your knee-jerk reaction to talk over people and listen in the cadence and rhythm [of their culture],” she says.
Employees at consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble learn the value of cross-cultural listening through a training program called “Cultures At Work.” They’re taught about “high context cultures,” — such as German, Italian and American — which are very verbal and whose people often chatter over one another. And they study “low context cultures,” such as those throughout Asia, where conversations are characterized by more quiet and deference. Neither is right nor wrong, says Linda Clement-Holmes, P&G’s chief diversity officer. And of course, these labels are stereotypes that have many exceptions. The point is to learn to be a sensitive, patient cross-cultural listener. “Your engagement with different cultures has to be very different,” Clement-Holmes says.
Among some Americans or some Italians, for example, you might hear what Reid calls “an explosion of conversation.” In these boisterous cultures, people often build rapid-fire strings of conversation in which one person adds onto another’s thought before the first person finishes and vice versa. This pattern of conversing requires a different set of ears than what’s necessary for conversations with a thought and then a pause. The beauty of learning to listen to different patterns of conversation from different cultures is that “you wind up with a more dexterous way of thinking,” Reid says. “This type of listening dexterity is a hallmark of any great multicultural team.”
When people don’t listen carefully to others they can easily make assumptions — too often the wrong assumptions — about what other people mean. Erika Walker-Thomas, senior vice president of development for the Center for Diversity & Research, recounts how some companies learn this the hard way. At one of her midwestern business clients a white leader of one high-profile team selected a staff of all white members. Consequently, an African-American woman, who had her sights set on making the team, was offended and assumed that the white leader was discriminating against her.
They talked (argued is more like it) and both angrily filed complaints with human resources. If only they had stopped to listen to one another. As it turns out, there was an insufficient process for identifying and selecting new team members that had nothing to do with the team leader’s feelings toward black employees. Had both sides been willing to listen and understand the other’s point of view the conflict could have been avoided, Walker-Thomas says.
To bosses and employees alike, listening across cultures can sometimes be the most challenging communication skill to learn. But the less foreign it is, the less volatile — and the more successful — a workplace will be.