the most important habit

Many of us have read or at least heard about Stephen Covey's book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." While tomes have probably been written and explored about Covey and his principles, we feel that it's worth spending a little time on the one habit we think is most important when dealing with people in an international business setting. Covey refers to this in his book as the 5th Habit,  "Seek first to Understand, Then to be Understood." What can be termed "empathetic communication" in the Covey universe is something we think is downright fundamental when you are dealing with intercultural business communications no matter whom you are dealing with and what limitations on your communication there may be.

Let's take a look first at the basic concept of empathetic communication. When two people come from similar cultural backgrounds, the same country or the same basic part of the world, there are unwritten forms of expression meaningful to both. For example, a simple handshake in many western cultures is a fairly well-known symbolic gesture that opens up a business introduction and the hope of further conversation. Who extends their hand first, how hard to shake, how long to hold the grip, whether to add the other hand or not - these are subtle differences that add to the richness of the unspoken communication conveyed.

In some countries, for example Japan, the handshake is replaced by a bow. A handshake may be offered, but it will be weak by comparison to an American handshake. In yet other countries, in China, for example, hand gestures in general are considered distracting, so while it's possible there will be a handshake, there will not be a lot of hand gestures throughout the rest of the communication. This is not the case, however, in some countries, such as Italy, Turkey or Greece, for example, where talking with one's hands is commonplace.

These are but a few small examples of the difference that cultural context and practice make when dealing with interpersonal relations among different peoples. We think, however, that many of the differences can be overcome (until learned, of course, as will ultimately be the most effective approach for extensive business relations) through the use of empathetic communication.

Many people do not actually listen to their counter party, no matter what language is being spoken. Even two people from the same culture using the same language can experience communication glitches that arise when one or both of the communicators are not in it for the other. We've all experienced the situation where someone we think should be listening to us is merely pausing, waiting for the next moment that they can talk. Think about how many times you've been introduced to someone and within seconds they have already forgotten your name. Sometimes that's because they never actually bothered to listen to it in the first place.

So, we think that if you follow just a few of these simple suggestions when you're interacting with someone, especially when there is a cultural or linguistic difference, you will find your communications more successful overall.

First, start listening empathetically. This means listen to the words that are being said, watch the body language of the person who is speaking. Are they animated? Do they seem excited, happy, angry, or nervous? About 60% or more of our communication comes from our body language. You can learn a lot by paying attention to the body of the speaker. Try to imagine the story as it is happening if the speaker is telling you about an experience or relaying information within the context of an example. Try to engage yourself on the level of understanding that will stick with you once the speaker is finished.

Next, make sure you actually heard or understood correctly. Don't interrupt if the speaker is "on a roll" but relay back to the speaker your understanding of what you are being told. Rephrase the information as you heard it, in part, and say, is that correct? Or, use another brief example to test that your understanding was correct. If there is something you did not understand, ask for another example or an alternative explanation. Always be polite and brief. Do not try to steal the floor from the speaker, but use these techniques briefly to ensure that you are understanding what is being said and to reassure the speaker that you are indeed listening and engaged.

Once the speaker has completed relaying the information and you are sure you understand it, then it is your ability to respond that will carry the conversation forward. You can provide your own opinions, insights or examples to highly your understanding of what the speaker has shared with you. And, you can then move into the next phase of communication by providing a response, question, or scenario that will lead your conversational partner in the direction you would like to go. You can use these skills you have acquired in listening and speaking to make sure that what you have to say is understood by your partner as well, and you can continue to evolve the relationship through the contextual cultural cues you pickup along the way as well as those you study.

Remember, most business relationships are built over time through trust, familiarity and affinity. When you make the effort to understand what your counter party is saying to you before you launch into your own point of view, you build the bridge more than halfway toward a meaningful exchange. The more practice you have, the more comfortable you will be with communicating in this way. Over time, you will be able to enrich your business relationships and enjoy a deeper level of communications with partners all around the world.

Read Stephen Covey's 5th habit and all 7 habits, if you like.