10 ways to handle an inter-cultural business meeting
The world of business, just like the world of diplomacy, is now outreaching to all ends of our planet providing grounds for fruitful cooperation, discussion and the pursuit of common goals. This globalization has one obvious advantage — one’s possibility to combine brain power, capital and share a vision with partners that not long ago were distant opponents or unreachable customers.
This outreach also allows for the opportunity to manage and oversee our international growth. Now more than ever we can produce and supply for the ever-rising demand both in our own community and abroad by the means developed alongside globalization. Despite the many benefits global outreach brings, it is not short of challenging situations. The main challenge is bridging the cultural gap, which if addressed inappropriately, may cause more harm than good Underestimating the importance of this issue can dramatically impact both short and long-term business relationships if not shatter them completely.
Here are 10 ways to help you address this issue and be better prepared to tackle any intercultural business meeting.
Prior to the meeting
1. Be the audience of your own words.
Write down your key points of the meeting and ask yourself the following questions:
- What I am going to say and how will I say it?
- How do I sound on the spectrum of “too demanding” to “too apologetic” and is it how I want to sound?
- What kind of answers or remarks am I expecting to receive and what would my response be for each?
- What goals am I trying to achieve during with this meeting?
- To what limits to I want to compromise if at all?
Handling a successful meeting is like preparing for a sports competition. The better you visualize and anticipate the path, the better your chances to react accordingly and control the situation. Preparation will provide you with the confidence you need to relax, open-up to your audience and get better results.
2. Be informed.
When meeting with people from other countries or different cultural backgrounds, it can be nice and appreciated to show that you have invested a little time gathering information on what is going on in the meeting attendees’ respective countries. It can be recent political changes such as the election of a new prime minister, of events that recently occurred such as a local grand sporting event. By doing this you allow your audience to feel more at ease and the mood to be more relaxed. You also gain the respect of your foreign audience who will feel that you are interested in them and who they are beyond the simple scope of the meeting
Investing 10 to 15 minutes to gather information will allow you to:
1) Break the ice and allow for all participants to feel more comfortable and getting a conversation to start.
2) Gain your audience’s respect and consideration by showing them you are interested in them.
3. Be on time.
This goes without saying, but be on time to the meeting and make sure to inquire what “on time” means in the attendees’ respective countries. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes early to a meeting is ideal, as it allows you to catch your breath, settle down and make yourself comfortable and organize your space (even putting your favorite pen on the right side of your notebook).
4. Be the ambassador of your own system. i.e — Brief your own team.
Obviously, your team should be already briefed on the topic, objectives and everything that has to do with the meeting. But as important as the technical knowledge, is applying the same gap-bridging thought process to your team-mates. Unless you are the only person to conduct the meeting, you should consider yourself and every single member of your team as the face of your business, your culture and your country (yes, sounds dramatic — but very true). Hence, it is very important to have a unified line between you and your peers in terms of handling the meeting. The same rules that apply to you — should apply to them.
During the meeting:
5. Ready, set, go!
At the beginning of the meeting present the agenda and the key elements to be discussed. This is a crucial part of the meeting which gives all participants a solid base from which to start. Oftentimes long-distance counterparts have slightly different ideas in regards to the main objectives, processes and methods to use for tackling the obstacles ahead. Unlike domestic meetings, where the majority of participants are fully synchronized in their mutual understanding of the basics — you’d be surprised of the number of incompatibilities which may arise in very fundamental building blocks between inter-cultural teams pursuing the same goals.
Humor is the key to any successful personal or professional relationship During a meeting, dropping a joke here and there can improve the general vibe and make stressed participants feel more at ease hence open up more easily to you. It can be anything from a joke regarding some recent news coverage, a professional situation that is common hence known to all participants or even better — a funny comment about YOUR culture.
7. Make their life easier.
Language shapes the way we think. We grow with it and develop our thought process using our mother tongue. So naturally, when we converse among ourselves we tend to express our ideas, thoughts and comments using the conversational tools we acquired over the years. Different language can often follow different thought process; therefore, you must explain yourself much more than you would have in normal circumstances. Using catch phrases, slang, inner-cultural jokes and sayings would (unless properly explained), in the best case — go unnoticed, or in the worst — create confusion and disrupt the flow of the meeting.
“It flew right over my head” — Is an example of such sentence that could gain different meanings depending on where you come from. In many middle eastern countries, this sentence would translate to “I did not notice it” or “I didn’t pay enough attention”. However, for many European countries, this sentence would imply that the subject/topic was “too difficult for me to understand”.
Another such example is a commonly used phrase by people who grew up in the United States — “sorry, I lied” — expressing the fact that they were mistaken by saying something wrong or not getting the facts right. Its used to replace the phrase “I made a mistake, sorry”. You can see how this phrase might create a lot of confusion.
In short, make sure that your counterparts know what you mean, and do not assume that they naturally do.
8. ”Checkpoint” and repeat for clarity and emphasis.
Manners, natural flow of conversation and nervousness can all create a false perception of mutual understanding. Therefore, during the meeting, one should “checkpoint” to ensure that all has been correctly understood thus far. There will almost always be a point which needs clarification, and which could have otherwise result in a different outcome. This is one of the most important steps to follow in order to make sure that your key points were understood. A good way of tackling this issue is to either repeat your points in different words, or actively ask your counter parts to repeat it to you.
9. Bring the cavalry.
Have someone with you in the meeting that speaks the language better than you (either the international language used to conduct the meeting OR your counterpart’s language). Miscommunication happens mostly when language isn’t understood and having a “third party” listener that could catch these miscommunication moments and alert you, could potentially save a lot of trouble.
10. Be humble, careful and sincere.
Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, a skilled debater or an accomplished businessperson, you should always remember that humility induces confidence, and that other cultures might perceive forceful or a very powerful behavior as dishonest or insincere.
- Be humble: acknowledge your counterparts and thank them more than you would regularly. Make them feel appreciated for doing business with you and let them know that you are grateful for the opportunity. Compliment their work, culture and approach.
- Be careful: Pay attention to your words and to the way you express yourself, especially expressing a personal opinion on a certain subject. Delicate topics can often perceive differently in different cultures (such as comments related to gender equality, racial comments and so on…)
- Be sincere: simply put — be transparent, voice your needs and objectives, and make sure that your audience fully understand where you come from. The bigger the cultural gap — the harder it is for words and tone to be fully expressed and understood. Sincerity is the best tool for the job.
If handled well, an inter-cultural business meeting can go seamlessly and be interactive and fruitful — and that’s the way it should be. Done wrong, it can become a nightmare of awkward silences, misunderstanding, and delay potential progress. These steps are the basics laid out to provide a foundation and it is up to you to take it in whatever direction. By making sure that these corner stones of mutual respect and readiness are met — you will surprise yourself with how much more you can achieve, and how much more you can express with confidence. Good luck.