Listening silently - cross cultural intelligence


I remember doing a session on cross-cultural communication for young leaders with a team in Austria. The team was comprised of an Austrian, a Canadian, an Ecuadorian, a Japanese and a Croatian. The sessions were highly interactive and participants were encouraged to give their opinion and to share knowledge. The young Japanese participant in the middle of one of the rows of tables sat quietly, listening. She offered no comment, no opinion. Yet, she was clearly engaged. Her eyes said it all. She took in every sound of conversation, registered every objection made and did not miss an unction.

Later that day, she and the others were invited to participate in a business challenge role play. Again, she stood on the side-lines most of the time, but did interact when invited to do so. Then, the groups who had each gone off to complete a task returned to the main training room and elaborated on what had gone well and what had not. Little notice was taken of this attentive, yet, seemingly shy Japanese.

Finally, each participant had to comment and sum up what they had learned. It was now that the young lady from Takayama in the Japanese mountains came to the fore. She had watched diligently, she had made mental notes and gathered what we might call ‘cross-cultural intelligence’.

As she explained what she had learned others were astonished. She had manged to sketch a picture of each of the participants and the team dynamics of such accuracy and insight and relay this information against the theories of Hofstede, Hall and others that the others were literally speechless. It seemed they only just realised she was actually in the same room with them.

She identified, in the nicest possible way, how the Austrian might have been able to negotiate better had he been willing to accept a different view, that the Equadorian might have wanted to take a little more time to review detailed instructions in order to complete the construction task given more successfully and that the Canadian might not have missed an important piece of information provided to her by the Croatian had she not wanted to dominate the conversation.

The learning for the group was tremendous. While they learned various aspects of cross-cultural communication during the role plays, it was not until they interacted in the real setting of the training feedback session that the theory started making sense. Each and every one had been so preoccupied with solving the challenges set that they forgot to engage with one another and, as a result, seemingly ignored their most silent team member.

Cross-cultural communication skills are vital in today’s business world. Understanding others’ values and resulting behaviour is essential to negotiation and communication. Yet, most importantly, those wishing to grow and succeed in international business, but also in local contexts with people from a variety of backgrounds must, first and foremost, understand their own values and behaviour so as to find ways to adjust when confronted with an alternative.  

Zeitgeist Communication offers highly effective Cross-cultural communications training both for multinational teams, but also for local teams who wish to take their teamwork and negotiation skills further. Contact us for a quote by writing to