Knowing When to Speak and When to Listen

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I read an interesting article of an experience shared by Erin Meyer in the Harvard Business Review ‘Cultural Coaching – Knowing when to shut-up.  Erin was working as a cultural coach, her assignment was to prepare a French couple for an expat posting in China with the support of Bo Chen, a Chinese country expert.

You would expect a cultural coach to be practised enough to adapt to an appropriate communication style and to instinctively generate a culturally inclusive environment.  The article highlights that in fact no matter how culturally aware we think we are, we are all fallible. It is easy to slip unconsciously back to communication styles that are native to us.

Erin’s intentions as she ran the session was for Chen to engage in the conversation, by stepping in when appropriate to offer his thoughts and knowledge; however, she found herself getting frustrated as he continued to sit in silence.  It was not until she invited his opinion did he begin to speak.  At this moment she realised that it wasn’t that Chen didn’t want to contribute but that he respectfully didn’t want to interrupt the discussion. Erin neglected to articulate her expectations or how she wanted to manage the flow of the session to Chen.

The dynamics of communication are culturally bound. We need to constantly have our ‘cultural antennas’ up so that we can be responsive to the connotations of silence and the subtle undercurrents of speech.  There can be many culturally bound reasons for silence and a lack of participation.  The cultural perceptions of contributing spontaneously in a formal conversation can be interpreted as rude, disrespectful and arrogant in some cultures; while in others a lack of contribution can be perceived as an absence of opinion and knowledge and non-engagement in the topic of conversation.

As Erin demonstrated in her article, she had the experience to see past her own frustrations and ask herself why Chen was – from her perspective – disengaged from the discussion.  She considered the silence from another perspective, rather than making the all too easy assumption that he had nothing to contribute.  Without this insight, there could have been another outcome – possibly ending with Erin fundamentally misunderstanding the abilities for Chen, not to mention a less fulfilling experience for the clients.

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