How to Best Manage Multicultural & Multilingual Meetings

How to best manage multicultural & multilingual meetings

The previous part allowed us to highlight several sources of potential misunderstandings with language and culture differences as a base. To some, it may seem like too much to deal with, and it certainly demands some work to overcome the difficulties, not even counting the fact the results are uncertain and often appear on the long-term.

Yet here are a couple of tips to help limit communication problems between participants with different languages and cultures.


Tip 1: remember to gather information about the participants’ language and culture, but also yours!

To be truly efficient one must become aware of one’s own level of mastery of the common language along with every other things that happen when we communicate and that are mostly unconscious (expectations, behaviors, values, rules…). That is the only way you can identify (before or during the meeting) the differences between the others and yourself and thus potential sources of misunderstandings along with possible solutions.

So it’s not enough to know who you’re dealing with – you need to know yourself too.


Tip 2: try to prepare/study as much as possible before the meeting

Ask yourself the following questions for instance and look for answers:

• Do the participants share a common language? What’s their level of mastery?

• Do we need an interpreter (and for whom)?

• Is there a risk that some participants will find it hard to actively participate in the conversation (or is there a risk that their contribution will be misunderstood)?

• Do I know the expectations of the meeting’s participants?

• What do I know about the way I communicate and the way the others do?

• What do I know about my relation to time and the others’?

By gathering those information as early as possible you’ll be able to clarify and agree on many things beforehand (both internally and externally). You’ll perhaps even be able to reorganize certain aspects (who comes, duration, location…), and in the end you’ll help reduce the number of difficulties once the meeting starts.

The point, however, is not to force your way of doing things onto others or to be the slave of their ways of doing. It’s all about looking at how they do things, how you do things and then finding some kind of compromise that takes into account external constraints. For example is you’re only staying in China for a couple of days, can you truly afford to use 75% of the meetings planned to build relationships? Or on the contrary, is it wise to only stay so little time in China if you know you must start by building relationships?


Tip 3: plan some facilitation/control work during the meeting

Even if you’re well prepared it’s important to pay attention to how the meeting goes to make sure no misunderstanding is allowed to develop. For example:

Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak up and especially the participants that have been identified as having the most difficulties to take part in the discussion (which assumes some work beforehand to identify these people). If necessary, ask the person directly for his or her opinion, especially when the topic is about his/her expertise or if he/she seems to want to talk.

Make sure questions are understood and lead to relevant answers that are understood as well. In this case it can be helpful to rephrase or paraphrase questions and answers just to ensure they’ve been understood by everyone.

Since it can prove difficult to “read the room” or the participants’ behavior correctly, don’t hesitate to clarify anything that goes without saying or that is implied. In the same manner, ask for a clarification of anything ambiguous (especially people’s reactions and behaviors). As a French person, it may be enough to say “we’re ready to extend the duration of this meeting to find an answer. What about you?” to your Swedish counterparts to elicit a much nicer reaction than by extending de facto. Or to ask “do you understand how important this task is?” rather than taking their calmness for a lack of interest.

Have people repeat anything that isn’t clear. If necessary, rephrase it to ensure everyone understands the same thing (especially when there’s a language mistake – a sentence that is grammatically wrong may instill doubt in the audience’s mind whereas everyone actually agrees!)


Tip 4: get some help!

All the information necessary to properly manage a multicultural & multilingual meeting can be found via training programs – I have for example given French courses and educated professionals about the French culture.

The best solution however remains to call upon a consultant who knows about intercultural communication and especially the languages and cultures that will be found during the meeting. This person can help prepare the meeting beforehand (by asking the right questions, providing relevant answers, identifying sources of potential misunderstandings, etc.) but also – and this is even more important – he or she can participate in the meeting itself as a “moderator” who allows the participants to fully focus on what they have to say while ensuring that the message goes through (which basically means fulfilling the role described above).

Even better yet, his/her knowledge will allow him/her, among other things, to act as an interpreter to correct or rephrase sentences that aren’t understood because they’re wrong, his/her ability to correctly “read the room”/understand non-verbal communication will help steering the conversation in the right direction (“you should elaborate on aspect X because the audience is skeptical”, “please, tell us whether you agree with Y”, “Is this clear? Do you have questions?”, etc.), and so on. By contrast a participant that isn’t a specialist will have to stick with trying to clarify his speech as best he can while staying focused on the meeting’s content.

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