Active Listening Skills for Multicultural Teams – 4 Key Considerations

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Active Listening Skills for Multicultural Teams – 4 Key Considerations

We all know that communication in culturally diverse teams can be challenging. Even if everyone is speaking the same language (usually English), what you say or what is said to you can often be misinterpreted, leading to time-consuming misunderstandings. Active listening skills can help.

In such scenarios, there are many simple but effective tools we can implement to help communication in this context. One of these tools is active listening – listening not just to the words being used and taking them at face value but listening in such a way that you are more likely to understand the real message being communicated.

Why does active listening have such an impact in the multicultural team environment in particular?

No two people interpret things exactly the same way. We are all influenced by our own life experiences and our own perspectives.

active listening skills

Imagine the added layer of complication when the conversation is between two people from different cultural backgrounds who see the world through their own cultural prism. Communication styles and the way one sees the world vary greatly from language to language and culture to culture.

For example, ‘to have an argument’ in French is a positive thing, however, the same expression in English conjures up notions of conflict and often anger. In Brazil, it may be perfectly acceptable to say, “Give me the phone”. However, native English speakers would balk at this way of being asked to do something.

Simply put, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation and miscommunication when it comes to cross-cultural exchanges.

Active listening, therefore, is even more critical when it comes to how you interact with colleagues or clients who are from a language and cultural background different to your own.

Here are some questions you can consider in order to help develop your active listening skills and overall competence in intercultural communication:

1)    Does the other person use each word in the same way?

As we’ve seen with the French example above, words and phrases often do not translate easily and even between languages that have similar roots, there are countless cases of words that have a similar sounding English equivalent but an entirely different definition.

Due to this, it is wise to pay close attention to the context, the tone of the sentence, and the person’s accompanying body language and facial expressions. This helps to understand the overall message being communicated and, by paying attention to all of these, you are more likely to detect whether or not the speaker actually meant exactly what they said or if there may have been some confusion with the word or words they used.

2) Did they mean to be impolite or cause offence?

The answer to this is almost always, no, of course not!

However, if we are interpreting communication through our own cultural lens we can get offended easily.

Let’s take the direct manner in which people from some cultures speak. Rather than ‘Would you mind sending me the report?’ you may simply hear ‘Send me the report’ and perhaps only sometimes have a ‘please’ attached to the end of the request.

Or you may get a very direct refusal to a request e.g. “No, I can’t do that” rather than “I’m afraid, that won’t be possible”.

Again, take in the body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice that accompanies these. Try to react neutrally until you know the real intention behind their communication and do not take offence easily.

3) What impact can I have as a native English speaker in conversation with a non-native English speaker?

Remember that team members speaking in English when it is their non-native language are constantly making a huge effort to not only do their work, but also to communicate clearly in a foreign language. This is no mean feat.

active listening skills

Take some of the responsibility for clear communication off their shoulders and make sure you are actively listening when they are speaking.

Of course, they may confuse words sometimes. Their communication skills in English might even suffer a little when they are tired towards the end of the day.

Let them know you are listening intently anyway and that you care about what they have to say by maintaining eye contact. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify what they wish to express. This shows you are interested in really understanding their input.

If you do not show that you are really listening, the person speaking to you will notice and, already self-conscious about their English language skills, will be less likely to share their thoughts and ideas in the future. Not making it clear that you are listening may even cause them to be more nervous about speaking at that very moment, often resulting in more hesitations and unclarity in their communication. Certainly not the best scenario for an engaged and productive team!


4) What do I know about the other person’s culture? How can active listening help?

If the company we work with is considered to be ‘X’ nationality, and everyone speaks in ‘X’ language, we should not only be aware of the language and culture that is associated with HQ but we should also consider the cultural influence of all those who work with us.

A little bit of awareness can go a long way. Active listening often means preparing before you listen, and this is where finding out a little more about a particular culture, and how that culture influences communication style, can lead to much improved active listening skills and ultimately fewer instances of miscommunication.


The next time you are about to speak to someone from a different language and cultural background, take just one minute to remind yourself of the points above.

Small changes to how we approach communicating on culturally diverse teams can make a significant impact on productivity, collaboration, and rapport. Develop your active listening skills.

Learn more about some of our related courses here:

+ Direct and Indirect communication styles

+ Global English Skills

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