1. Expect Language Difficulties
Misunderstandings are very common, even when speaking with participants with English as their primary language. The burden of being understood and of understanding falls on you as the AFS Volunteer. Tips include:
- Speak clearly when addressing the participant and, whenever possible, face him or her directly while speaking. When the participant does not understand, speak slower (not louder)!
- When the participant asks you to repeat, do so the first time by using the same words. If s/he still does not understand, rephrase the message using simpler words.
- Maintain patience with repeated requests for help. Offer encouragement when it’s needed; praise accomplishments.
- Do not assume you are understood. Even if a participant is smiling and nodding his or her head “yes,” ask him or her to paraphrase what you have said.
- More communication problems occur when the AFS Participant can speak your language to a moderate extent than when s/he can barely speak it. A majority of misunderstandings occur in this situation because one assumes a greater level of fluency and understanding than actually exists. Also, many participants tire of always asking for an additional explanation every time they are not completely certain of a full understanding. They often just nod their head to “get on with it.”
2. Be Aware
Because cultural differences are involved, there may be aspects of the participant’s attitude and behavior that you do not fully understand. Take every opportunity to become increasingly aware of the attitudes, values, roles, expectations, and points of view that are characteristic of the culture from which the participant comes. Always look for these hidden dimensions as you deal with participants from day to day, and then put yourself in their place as the two of you cope with a particular problem.
For information on Culture Grams, culture-specific resources available to AFS Liaisons and others, please see Cultural/Country Specific information on the AFS Wiki Support Page.
3. Suspend Judgment
Snap judgments can easily become a major stumbling block to open and effective communication and complete understanding, especially in cases where problems or misunderstandings are involved. Act on the assumption that the participant is a person of integrity and good will. In addition, be aware of your own cultural and other biases that might be playing a role in the situation.
Listen carefully to what is being said and ask for clarification if needed.
5. Be Sensitive and Accepting
Be open to whatever the participant may be telling you, verbally and nonverbally. Remember that s/he will often feel under stress and may become lonely, anxious, frightened, or confused from time to time. By being a sensitive and accepting listener, participants will feel able to look to you for support during difficult periods.
6. Be Honest
If a misunderstanding arises between you and the participant, discuss the matter with him or her openly and honestly. Be aware, however, that in some cultures it is not considered desirable to have frank and open discussions about personal misunderstandings. You will need to keep the participant’s cultural background in mind.
Take every opportunity to share your way of life and that of other members of your community with the participant. The participant’s stay is enriched through community involvement. Keep in mind, though, that the stress of an intercultural experience can be quite exhausting. Some participants will need more “down time” than others.
8. Show an Interest
Make an effort to find out as much as possible about the participant’s life in his native community. Many participants are eager to talk about home and appreciate having this opportunity.
9. Attempt to Empathize
Imagine yourself in the other person’s place—far from home, friends, and family; communicating in a new language; trying to understand so many new ways of interacting and communicating; and trying to understand what everyone expects of you. Empathy is a mental effort based on knowledge, not merely on emotion. Having empathy becomes especially important, and is especially difficult to achieve, when cultural differences are involved.
10. Be Aware of Nonverbal Communication
The nonverbal actions of both you and the participant, affects the conversation. Watch for what is not being said.
11. Use effective inquiry
Use the “right” kind of questions to elicit the answers you need: open or closed inquiries and minimal encouragement. See tips for effective inquiry listed previously.
12. Be a Sounding Board
Listen and reflect back words and feelings. Remember that when you are talking, you are learning little of what is going on in the other person’s mind.