Intercultural Communication Techniques
One of the most important ways to communicate is TO LISTEN. Listening is the bridge between hearing and understanding. All cultures use listening skills in different ways. Good human relations depend on people understanding one another’s meaning, whatever words they happen to use. In order to listen, you must:
- give full attention to the speaker
- put aside any preconceived ideas of what the speaker is going to say
- interpret what is going on descriptively and not judgmentally
- be alert for any confusion, and ask questions to get clarity
- let the speaker know that s/he has been heard, repeating the content you received
Good listening skills can be learned. They must then be practiced in daily life in order to maintain them. This means that the skills you use as an AFS Support Volunteer are necessary and useful in your everyday affairs as well—whether you are with your child, your spouse, your boss, your client, your minister, or your friend. They are a basis for sharing, information gathering, self-exploration, and positive personal change.
When you talk
The way you speak can have a great effect on how you are received by another person but before you speak, remember not to talk too much. Your responsibility as a support volunteer is to help the participant find his or her own answers. Be a good listener—refrain from giving advice prematurely and allow the participant to bounce their ideas off you. When you speak, use a warm, expressive voice that allows the participant to relax and concentrate on the subject under discussion. Pace your words to the conversation so the other person is not feeling pressured by rapid or abrupt speech. Remember to stay on the subject by focusing on what has been said; try to avoid thinking ahead about what you will say next.
Language is only one way in which we communicate. The ways we touch or fail to touch one another, where we direct our eyes, the amount of distance we keep between ourselves and others, the facial expressions we use, our gestures and postures, our forms of dress and grooming, our handling of time—these are all very powerful communication tools. Be aware of the nonverbal messages the speaker is giving you. Attend to pauses, tone of voice, bodily reactions, and glances. You can read a great deal about what s/he is saying and how s/he feels about it, if you are taking in these unconscious messages as well.
It’s important to note that cultures differ in the use of eye contact, other nonverbal behavior, and silence. As an example, Asians may express respect by averting their eyes, lowering their voices, and allowing periods of silence. A Latin American may not talk comfortably unless he is standing at such a close distance that a North American might feel disquieted.
As an AFS Volunteer working with participants from around the world, it may be necessary for you to adjust your eye contact, body posture, and verbal behavior to participants’ cultural, ethnic, and individual differences in order to have effective communication with them.
Silence is often useful as a tool in communication. Respect the person’s need to be silent; a participant may be using that time to work things out in his or her own mind before continuing a discussion. You may need to resist the impulse to rush in and save someone from what seems to be an awkward pause by filling it with talk. Your use of silence can allow the participant the time to think and can convey positive nonverbal messages as well.
Discussing feelings and emotions
Discussing feelings is often an important prerequisite to solving problems. The posture, voice, and mannerisms of individuals often provide important information about their emotions. You can then use that information to help the participant voice emotions. One of the most important aspects of helping others is developing the ability to reflect the identified feeling back to the person.
Reasons to reflect the feelings of another:
- helps that person become aware of, accept, and explore that feeling
- helps you demonstrate that you understand how the individual is experiencing his/her world
- helps to develop a stronger relationship between you and the other person
Techniques to Reflect the Feelings of the Individual:
- Summarize the feelings the person seems to be experiencing and ask for feedback/agreement. If you have summarized incorrectly, encourage the person to clarify and try to summarize again.
- Identify and articulate the full range of the person’s emotions: positive, negative, ambivalent.
- Paraphrase the person’s exact words using a single statement or a number of statements. It is important to pay careful attention to the essence of a person’s comments rather than to the words the person uses. This is particularly true in cross-cultural communication when language is used differently.
By paraphrasing and summarizing the statements a participant, host parent or even natural parent makes, you are indicating that you are attending to and understanding what s/he is saying. It also reinforces the direction of the conversation, particularly if comments are lengthy, rambling, or confused. Paraphrasing is particularly helpful when an individual appears to be threatened by a discussion of his feelings. Summarizing can be valuable in concluding an interview or in opening a new conversation by reviewing the previous one. Both techniques can help participants clarify feelings and help a support volunteer establish a closer relationship with them.
Effective inquiry requires careful listening so you are aware of how to approach the situation under discussion. You can then utilize any of three techniques:
- open inquiry
- closed inquiry
- minimal encouragement
Open inquiries can be an effective way to open an interview, gather monthly contact information or conduct a counseling session. They put the person at ease and begin the flow of words. Once the participant is into a conversation, open inquiries will give him greater opportunity to discuss topics that are relevant to him or her, to explore and clarify concerns, and to allow the opportunity to elaborate on a subject. These inquiries will give you a chance to elicit specific examples of general situations. To facilitate open inquiries:
- Ask an open-ended question (one that cannot be answered by a “yes,” “no,” or a simple fact). (Note: Questions beginning with “what” are usually fact-oriented.)
- Ask a question that is on the topic. (Note: This could be a problem for some Asians, since some Asian populations feel uncomfortable with a direct, one-topic approach. In this case, use a more indirect and subtle approach.)
- Start a question with “could” or “can,” as this approach provides the participant the greatest flexibility for response.
- “How” questions are usually people-oriented and focus on process.
- Avoid questions beginning with “why.” This approach can often provoke defensive feelings.
Closed inquiries are questions which can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or a simple fact. You may need to use this type of question when you need information that is important to the progress of the discussion or to file a report. This technique is used infrequently, however, as it offers no latitude for discussion, and people can get upset and defensive when forced into this type of response.
Minimal encouragement is a technique which indicates to others that you are interested in what they have to say. Once you have asked a question, encourage the person to continue talking by employing a prompt which indicates you are listening and want him to continue. Minimal encouragement techniques include:
- using words such as “and then?”, “uh hmm...”, and “right”
- repeating a few key words from a person’s previous statement