Listening Skills in Cross Cultural Communication – Why So Important?

Do you lead or work within a multi-cultural organization? What one factor is most critical to your success? Here are some powerful reasons why you must learn to listen effectively.

Good listening skills in cross-cultural communication are absolutely essential. Experts and experience continue to emphasize this. This one aptitude gives you great power to impact other people’s thinking.

The Cost Of Not Listening Well

An MIT-trained cross-cultural expert was sent to find out why a certain Asian company was consistently losing its employees. Was it a compensation problem? That was the first guess. However, five days, one survey, 10 extensive employee interviews and several meetings with the CEO revealed a very different problem.

The company’s leader had not taken time to speak with nor listen to her employees. Predictably everyone, including the CEO, became frustrated.

Technology Does Not Always Help

None of us like to think of ourselves as poor listeners. Yet the very tools designed to help us communicate can often make it harder to listen. How so?

Business efficiency expert, Brian Tracy, highlights a challenge: We receive more email in a year than all the pieces of mail our parents pulled out of their mailbox in an entire lifetime.

Busy people today are becoming even busier. There are many issues to handle. All of the distractions make it easier to simply assume that people who share a common language will understand you.

David Livermore, president at the Cultural Intelligence Center, cited here points out that patience is the secret ingredient in a multi-cultural environment. Slow is the new fast when working across cultures. Livermore also emphasizes that lightning fast technology and speedy internet connections train us to be impatient.

What Not To Do

Sebastian Reiche, PhD and Associate Professor in the Department of Managing People in Organizations at IESE, agrees with Livermore about this. Way too often we are impatient and defeat our purpose. We get distracted during a conversation or hurry to end the conversation.

What is one of the biggest distractions? Ourselves. While the other person is talking, instead of listening, we are thinking about what we will say.

It may feel good, even powerful, when we are uncompromising or direct in expressing our own opinions. Yet this too is self-defeating when trying to influence others, Reiche points out.

Do This Instead

Reiche, referring to a Harvard Business Review article, says: process what you hear instead of just recording it. Understand and remember the other person’s reasoning. Summarize their main points. Say it in your own words.

Let the speaker know you heard them. Show empathy. After they express themselves, mirror their feelings. For example, you could say: “It sounds like you feel unhappy about the decision.”

This builds trust and opens the way for conversations crucial to your business success.


Surely you have heard this before, and likely your experience already proves this: people are the greatest resource in any endeavor. Those who do not invest time in speaking with and listening to the people in their organization always pay a high price for it.

Email and many technology tools for aiding communication cannot replace speaking and listening. Face to face conversation is best. Nor can these tools replace the patience needed in a multi-culture environment.

To receive rich dividends from the people you work with, carefully listen when they speak. The more opportunities you create to empathize with them, the more power you have to motivate and influence them.

To succeed in cross-cultural communication, you truly must develop effective listening skills.

Sana Reynolds offers cross cultural communication courses and workshops for those wishing to succeed in business conversations.