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Listening in a Cross-Cultural Environment


The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership conducted a study in 2020 on the factors that contribute to women’s ability to lead. One of the findings highlighted the importance of learning how to listen carefully in the workplace. This seems easy enough to do, but is it?  Many experts have pointed out the role of technology in distracting us from truly listening, and have offered tips for improving this important skill. But what if your ability to listen carefully and effectively is hindered by language? 

The Challenges of Effective Listening

According to the Pew Research Center, 13.7% of the US population in 2018 was foreign-born. Out of those 67.3 million residents, 21.9% spoke a non-English language at home. Our workplaces are more multilingual than we think. This presents an additional challenge for effective communication—especially with listening. Let’s take my case, for example. My first language is Tagalog or Filipino. When I came to the US for graduate school, I was proficient in writing and reading English. Having no choice but to speak English, I also became more verbally fluent. However, my first job required a lot of phone conversations with New Yorkers. Though I would listen intently, I could not always understand them, and they could not understand me. Is it possible that both parties on the line were attempting to listen intently yet still couldn’t “hear” each other due to cultural differences? 

The Four Skills of Effective Communication

Complete fluency in a language does not come all at once.  It actually requires the development of four different skills: listening, speaking, writing, and reading. In my case, I could speak, read, and write well. But listening presented a challenge whenever I was confronted with different accents, intonations, pronunciations, cadence, and speaking speed. (It still does!)  This challenge can be equally true, by the way, for native English speakers, whether that’s communicating with colleagues from different regions of the world or even different regions of the country. That was certainly the case for many of the New Yorkers on the other end of the line in my first job. While subtitles or closed captioning can be turned on in TV viewing, these devices are not available in the work setting. What can people do to overcome this?

Overcoming Listening Challenges

The good news: Many of the listening tools highlighted by communication experts also apply to a multicultural work environment. In fact, they are even more important. Examples of these are paying close attention to what the speaker is saying and avoiding distractions like technology. Any distraction from listening can cause information processing to be derailed, and as a consequence, derailment in effective listening. A useful practice that enhances listening is taking notes because it helps the listener to focus. But there are also a half-dozen other useful practices that can be adopted to facilitate careful and effective listening in the workplace, especially during meetings.

Six Suggestions for Effective Meetings

  1. Provide a meeting agenda. This will give context to the conversation or discussion taking place. It also helps the listener anticipate words, categories, and possible subtopics or issues that might come up.
  2. Visual aids. For more formal meetings, visual slides are a very important tool. They contextualize what listeners are hearing and verify important points being made. 
  3. Take notes. For the listener, taking notes while listening helps focus attention on the speaker. It also helps them follow the flow of the conversation and keep track of the points being made.
  4. Practice backchanneling. A conversation or meeting is always a two-way interaction: there’s the speaker and the listener. These roles can be interchangeable. We typically communicate that we are listening to and understanding a conversation by backchanneling—communication signals to the speaker that the listener is engaged and actively listening. An example might be nodding our head in agreement or furrowing our eyebrows if we don’t understand or agree. The listener can also ask questions as a way to backchannel. This signals to the speaker that the points are clear. It also helps the listener stay focused. Paying attention to a noticeable lack of backchanneling cues is also useful. It may be an indication that there is a breakdown in communication. The speaker can then do the backchanneling by seeking opinions or asking if the listener needs more clarification. 
  5. Recapping. Summarizing a point or conclusion made during a meeting goes both ways. The listener can make sure that a point was clear by summarizing it verbally— for their own understanding of the discussion as well as the understanding of others. The speaker can also help the listener by doing a recap of the main points or conclusions. 
  6. Speak clearly. We are all accustomed to speaking in a certain way. Because of that, we take for granted how others may hear us. Better enunciation helps our listeners understand us. This is not only for non-native English speakers like myself. It is very much true for native speakers. We’ve all seen it before on TV: an American speaking loudly to a non-native speaker (or someone who looks non-American) as if they’re deaf. In most cases, the challenge for the non-native speaker is not hearing. Rather, it is not understanding because of a lack of enunciation. Help your listener by pronouncing your words clearly and distinctly. It doesn’t need to be exaggerated (again, just like on TV) but just enough for our listener to distinguish each individual word and not just hear a slur of them.

Other Ways to Hone Your Listening Skills

Beyond meetings, there are several other ways to hone effective listening skills, especially in a cross-cultural workplace. Native English speakers can try making an effort to converse with non-native speaker colleagues socially to get more accustomed to their ways of speaking. This also develops camaraderie and conversational skills. Non-native English speakers, on the other hand, can try watching English-language news and television shows and listening to radio programs and podcasts. These can provide important cultural context for idiomatic phrases and jargon. Refrain, however, from turning on closed captioning to avoid being reliant on it. After all, it’s about practicing listening skills, not reading.

Just Do It

The challenges of listening in a cross-cultural environment can be overcome. I’m living proof. (I am not quite there yet, by the way—I still can’t understand Stallone in any of the Rocky movies—but I have definitely gotten better.) Just like with other skills, improvement requires effort, active engagement, and time. We just need to be open to it and do it. 

For additional resources, please visit the following:

Important Active Listening Skills and Techniques

How to Improve Active Listening Skills in Business Situations

The Better Understanding Podcast