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Sherwood Fleming on Intercultural Communication

We build our futures together, in the words we exchange today.

Simplifying Intercultural Business Meetings

After a recent session a client told me that, “You’re a magician. I understand others better and feel much more comfortable using English during meetings, thanks to you.” While I appreciated his comment, the truth is that the magic my client experienced was due not to me but to the speech acts that form the central part of my training sessions. This is because speech acts are no less than the life savers that help us overcome the challenges of communicating interculturally.

Meetings are a good example of this. Dissatisfaction with meetings is nothing new. In my twenty years as a business communication coach and trainer in Canada and France, I have heard the same opinion expressed repeatedly: “Meetings are a waste of time.” However, within intercultural business contexts, when people use English as a foreign language, I often hear a different opinion: “Intercultural meetings in English are so difficult.” In the first case, people often blame others. In the second case, people typically blame themselves. My clients usually conclude that, “If I knew English better, meetings wouldn’t be so difficult.” But the truth is that even native English speakers find intercultural business meetings challenging.

As my clients discover, the confusion is not caused by the lack of vocabulary and grammar but from a more fundamental problem that is easily remedied but rarely explored -- the structure of meetings themselves. Is there an alternative to the topic-based agenda for meetings and the chronological manner in which meeting recaps are written? I believe there is.

First, what is common to most meetings? They include some or all of the following: an exchange of opinions; asking for or offering future actions to be taken; promising to take those actions; and sometimes declaring future directions. That is why I recommend that my clients structure their intercultural meetings based on the five speech acts common to all languages: opinions, requests, offers, promises and declarations.

Second, during most meetings the five speech acts are typically all jumbled together. But when speech acts are not clearly defined, people get lost. The metaphor I use is that people feel like they are swimming in a sea of words. Or as one of my seminar participants said more dramatically, “I feel like I am drowning in a sea of words,” before asking if I could save him. During intercultural meetings many experience that sinking feeling of being overwhelmed and wish someone would throw them a life saver ring.

Third, I also show my clients how to be clear and complete when using each speech act, or speech stream as I call it, to continue with my water metaphor. What I find repeatedly is that, regardless of our culture, most of us make incomplete requests and offers. We confuse declarations with promises. We do not know how to express our opinions simply and persuasively.

My intercultural communication seminars, and my first book Dance of Opinions, focus on how to master using speech acts in English clearly, concisely and confidently. That is important because they are the building blocks, not only of human communication, but more importantly of human coordination of action. While we have all been conditioned by our cultures to use speech streams in a certain way, we are not aware of it. Because of our lack of awareness, we do not know how to adapt speech acts effectively to intercultural business contexts such as meetings.

By becoming aware of how to use the universal language of speech acts more effectively, we can save ourselves -- and each other -- from the challenges inherent in intercultural business contexts. Speech acts are something we all know... but do not know that we know. Sometimes the best solution to a communication problem, such as ineffective meetings, is to go back to basics, as shown below.

Structuring Intercultural Meetings on Speech Acts

When speech acts form the structure, the agenda of a meeting can then look like this:

1. Declarations - vision for a possible future

2. Opinions - points of view of what is, and is not, the best course of action

3. Requests - who has to do what, by what time and by what standards

4. Offers - who has offered to do what, by what time and by what standards.

5. Promises - who has promised to do what, by what time and by what standards

Meeting recaps can also then be written by using this structure. The names of participants can be featured prominently, so they only have to read the parts that are relevant to them.

When my clients are not in a position to implement this kind of meeting structure, I recommend that they say simple sentences or phrases before a speech act to help guide their listeners. For example, they can say, “I have a request/offer,” or “Here is my promise/opinion/declaration.” When I work with intercultural teams I encourage everyone to use those introductory phrases and to structure team meetings in this way, which makes it easier to follow discussions in English.

Implementing such a speech act structure either directly or indirectly during intercultural meetings means that everyone is then navigating the sea of words in the same way. As a result, cultural differences float away as comprehension increases. And cries of “Man overboard!” become increasingly rare.

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