I had one of my first lessons on intercultural communication from a Dutch colleague. I'd just arrived in the UK and we were having coffee, complaining about the unpredictable Scottish weather when she said out of the blue: “You know when a British person tells you your project is interesting?”
“Oh yes,” I said.
“Well,” she added “What they really mean is that it’s shit.”
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to remember the last time somebody had called one of my ideas “interesting”.
You can learn intercultural communication the hard way by making mistakes or listening to the blunt and bold advice of your colleagues, or you can get some training. However, there are aspects of communication that are so entangled with our own worldviews, culture and personality traits that you can grapple with them for years and still make little progress. Think about the Duke of Edinburgh’s famous questions and remarks and you’ll probably know what I mean.
One of my best friends at school spoke in a very loud voice. One day I complained about it because as a child I was shy and found it embarrassing. To my comment she replied: “Oh, that’s nothing,” and added “In my family we all talk like this. The other day I was playing monopoly with my brothers and sisters and the neighbours came to check if everybody was OK.”
As a child I found her energetic personality both fascinating and disturbing. I met her again a couple of years ago. She hasn’t changed at all. She’s still as I remember her: loud, energetic and fun.
We communicate as who we are: impulsive, nervous, shy, calm, funny or witty.
So what can we do when we want to change the way we communicate because isn’t helping us to connect with others?
It may be that we use a lot of words to explain an idea, or that people struggle to understand what we mean because we use a lot of jargon.
These are some of the things that you can do to improve your communication style besides getting outside help or training.
First, start compassionately small.
Choose one single thing: take one element – loudness, or overuse of technical words – and ask yourself
“Why am I being/doing/using (…………) ? What do I want to achieve/obtain from it?”
The whole point of this exercise is to understand why you’re clinging to patterns of communication that don’t help you. Because there is a reason. Maybe it’s a coping strategy that doesn’t serve you any more.
If you try to remove that element or trait without acknowledging the reason behind it, the change you want to introduce will not last. The system will restore itself to its original form as soon as you find yourself in a stressful situation. It’s like removing a broken leg from a table without replacing it with a whole one. At some point the table will collapse.
Don’t stop there.
Second, stay curious.
Let’s say you’re loud, especially when facing disagreement, because you want to be heard.
You can ask yourself what other resources you can use to feel that you’re being heard.
What is the meaning of being heard for you? How do you know you’ve been heard? And why is this important? Is it about power? Is it about validation? Is it about people doing what you want them to do? Is it about control? Is it about your feelings being taken into account?
When you get a better understanding of what’s behind what you want to change, you’ll find meaningful alternatives that are sustainable and suitable for who you are.
Third, do the hard emotional work.
Most of the time you’ll find that by going deeper you get to the essence of what’s really underneath your communication style.
It can be that you’re loud because you’re associating being heard with people doing what you want them to do.
And that’s when it gets tricky, because at some point you need to let it go. You need to relinquish control, power, you name it, and experience being heard as being listened to without control or power as part of the equation.
The hard work isn’t making the effort to lower your voice when you’re mad but relinquishing the need for power and control over others. In doing so you’ll experience the joy of connection as an alternative to power and control. Yep…. that’s hard emotional work.
That’s why effective/compassionate/non-violent/assertive/empathic communication is so challenging, because we’re not working with how we talk but with how we see the world, as a battlefield, a place of scarcity or a place of abundance.
It's your choice.