Entrepreneurs

See Ya, Awkwardness: How To Communicate With Your Global Team With Ease

By Jane Qiu, the co-founder of Kintell, a video learning & engagement platform. She has a Ph.D. in international management.

Diversity. It might feel like a buzzword but let’s be real — diversity is awesome. Diverse perspectives make our organizations stronger. They ensure that our products and services cater to the real world, not just a small group of people who look or think like us. They help us come up with new ways to approach old problems. 

These days, we have the potential to make our organizations more diverse than ever before, with remote teams from all over the globe working together. Yet oftentimes, as soon as we hit differences that challenge us, our appreciation for diversity goes out the window. 

A few years back, I was teaching a group of MBA students how to communicate with people from different cultures. By the end of one session, an American student felt safe enough to say, “I’m a gun supporter and I support Donald Trump.”

I could feel the tension go up in the room — after all, this was a group of mostly liberal, Australian students. And look, if I hadn’t been training myself to respond differently, I would have reacted the exact same way. But here was an awesome example of someone who had a very different cultural background and very different beliefs to me and most of the class — now how would we deal with it?

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Luckily, we’d already been working on how to deal with those differences — through a framework called UMEA.

UMEA: The Key To Communicating Effectively With Anyone

I developed the UMEA framework as a complement to slightly old-fashioned (and pretty stereotypical) cultural competency frameworks that I’d learned about in academia. UMEA became a way to not only recognize differences but learn how to better overcome them so that we can all connect as human beings — something that’s vital if we want to build strong and diverse teams. But what is UMEA, and how can you use it in your business?

U – Understanding

When you’re interacting with someone from a different culture and they do something that doesn’t match what you’re used to, you usually respond emotionally rather than logically. You might wonder “Why would you do that?” and assume something is wrong with them. Building your knowledge helps you bridge the gap and understand a different perspective.

Let’s say you’re a Western business owner looking to expand into Asia. Before you jump on a plane (let’s pretend we’re in a COVID-free world here!), you might want to find out how to present your business card according to the local culture. For example, did you know that in China it’s considered polite to present your card using both hands, with the Chinese side facing the other person? Building your understanding of common cultural practices can help you avoid any awkwardness or misunderstandings, so why wouldn’t you do it?

M – Mindfulness

Mindfulness is more than just chanting “om” and having a solid meditation session. It involves cultivating your mind to observe your reaction to someone else and the emotions you feel nonjudgmentally. If you can do that, you’ll be more likely to avoid the quick “knee-jerk” reactions that come from our own cultural bias and that make other people defensive.

Remember that American student I mentioned earlier? After thanking him for sharing, I asked everyone to sit with the tension without reacting immediately. It helped everyone realize that a lot of the reaction we have to other people is physical. Even before you’ve said anything, your body shows it and the other person has already received the message and withdrawn — preventing any effective communication. That’s why being mindful of our own reactions is so important.

E – Empathy

Empathy is vital when it comes to communicating effectively with someone from a different culture because it gives you the motivation and willingness to feel what the other person is feeling and try to understand where they’re coming from.

I mentioned upfront how important diversity is but to work together effectively we also need to find similarities. Empathy is the key. It helps you see someone else’s perspective and in doing so, connect with them on a personal level. 

A – Action

Once you’ve built up your understanding, become mindful of your reactions and personal bias and have empathized with other people, it’s time to try things out. You won’t always get it right, but as long as you continue to apply this framework, you’ll keep gaining a deeper understanding of the other person and be able to get to the point where you can communicate effectively.

After the American student had shared, I invited other students to speak — reminding them to stay respectful of him and acknowledge his sincerity and willingness to be open. They were amazing — sharing their views without discounting or attacking his own. It led to one of the best conversations I’ve ever been part of. I’m still incredibly proud of that half an hour, when the UMEA framework came into play and students learned to connect with each other despite huge differences in where they came from. 

Creating Connections From Difference

We all bring a different perspective to the world, which is great! Imagine how boring the world would be if we all thought the same way. UMEA is just one way to recognize, learn about and respond to the different lens or perspective that someone else has so you can more effectively communicate and connect with everyone. And in a world full of global teams, that’s gotta be a good thing.

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