ATD Blog

You May Be Heard, But Are You Being Understood?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How often do you find yourself feeling surprised when a global team member or colleague reacts in an unexpected way to something you say or have asked them to do? Do you find yourself thinking: “They just didn’t get it!”

If this sounds familiar then I have news for you. Maybe it’s not that they didn’t “get it.” Maybe it’s that you didn’t properly communicate it!

What do I mean by this?

There is a very big difference between “being heard” and “being understood.” Communication is not simply about the transmission of information, it’s about the reception and understanding of it too.  Everyone has different ways in how they like to receive information and, if you add to this the complexities of working with colleagues from different countries and cultures, it’s easy for communication to quickly break down.

The growth of global businesses and global teams has increased the likelihood of working closely with colleagues whose first language is different to your own. Given that global team members can have a hard time understanding one another even when they're all speaking the same language, it should come as no surprise that communicating with business associates who speak different languages can cause confusion and misunderstanding.

Becoming an adaptable communicator is essential in today’s global business environment. In my last blog post, “When Does Yes Mean No,” I talked about the challenges and pitfalls for global leaders communicating across cultures and shared some examples of how easily misunderstandings can occur. Now, I’d like to like to share practical tips for improving adaptability and flexibility, together with best practices in communicating across cultures.

Case in point

One of my clients, who is originally from India, accepted a senior leadership position in a southern U.S. state. He already had some experience of working in the United States, but this was in the cosmopolitan, cultural melting pot of New York City, where the business community is well-accustomed to welcoming colleagues from other cultures and the pace of both speech and business is fast and often aggressive.

Upon arrival, my client quickly realized that he would need to adapt his communications style to the more traditional business environment of Kentucky, where business—and conversations—tend to be conducted based on interpersonal relationships and trust—and where his accent and cultural background might represent more of a barrier. 

Fortunately, my client is an excellent example of an adaptable global leader.  “I am mindful about the regional cultures in the U.S., and I adjust the way I communicate to ensure we understand each other.  When it comes down to it, it is all about respect.” he said. “When people see me making a genuine effort to be respectful by listening and learning how things work around here, they open their arms and doors.  I am truly grateful!” 


It sounds simple doesn’t it?

Adaptability leads to good communication

Adaptability is a core skill of global communicators. Indeed, being a flexible communicator is an asset in any environment, professional, or personal. For some, it is a natural response to any new environment.

But for many people, it is not something that comes naturally. It takes a conscious and concerted effort to adapt their natural communication style. For a very small minority, there is no attempt at flexibility, instead they end up resorting to the outdated tactic of simply talking LOUDLY…AND…SLOWLY…to no good effect!

The particular leader in my story is often the model I use when coaching my other clients on communications challenges, simply because communicating effectively is an aptitude that he has developed and mastered to such a degree that it is now very natural for him.

Style switching to communicate clearly

To support clients who need to develop their ability to communicate effectively across cultures, I have used an approach called “style switching.” 


Style switching is not a technical skill, it is a mindset. I work with my clients to create a communications mode that they can consciously practice until such time as it becomes a natural process. It is not about changing your personality or manipulating the situation. Rather, style switching is about understanding the other person’s perspective, remaining authentic and retaining your core values so that you are better able to adapt your behavior to the situation you find yourself in. Most importantly, your intention is to have a win-win outcome.

Here are my top tips for becoming a better communicator by learning to switch your communications style.

Remember that your communication is your responsibility. It is all too easy to get frustrated when others don’t understand the point you are trying to make, but the reality is that it is your responsibility as a communicator to get your point across clearly and effectively. If you always hold that commitment as a basic principle of your communication style you will learn to naturally adapt your message and delivery until understanding is reached.

Do your research. Try to find out as much as possible about the cultures, people, and language you will be communicating with. Check with a trusted colleague from the same culture, on how best to adapt your communication to their culture—and pitfalls to avoid—or undertake research. There are plenty of useful resources online.

Create a positive and inclusive environment. Demonstrate warmth and willingness to put people at ease, especially with those who speak a different language to you. People tend to be self-conscious and a little nervous when speaking a foreign language, even if they have a good level of fluency.  It will be helpful if you can be encouraging and patient with them. 

Slow down your pace and keep it simple. Slow down key words in your speech, not the entire statement and use signposting to make it clear when you are changing topics. Use short sentences and clear, consistent, simple words. For example, “They underestimated our capability” would be more easily understood as “They don’t think we can do this.”

Avoid slangs and idioms as these are generally culturally specific and watch your body language as certain gestures and body language can be positive in one culture, and very offensive in another. Make sure body language you use is mutually understood and respectful.  

Check understanding. Great communicators operate in ‘receive’ mode as well as in ‘broadcast’ mode. Seek feedback, both verbal and non-verbal, to check that your communication has been properly understood. 

About the Author

Maya Hu-Chan was rated one of the world’s top eight global solutions thinkers by Thinkers50, and one of the World’s Top 30 Leadership Gurus in 2013. Maya is an international management consultant, executive coach, and author. Harvard Business School has chosen her book , Global Leadership: The Next Generation, to be one of their working knowledge recommended books. She is also a contributing author to 10 leadership and management books. Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego. She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world. To contact her, email  [email protected], or visit her website at

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