Learning to Communicate is Cross-Cultural Training
As a 15-year-old, I often wondered how I could prepare to become a cross-cultural worker. That was my life goal, but I wasn’t sure how to successfully get myself ready. I heard of one famous preacher who used to go into the forest as a boy and practice raising his voice in order to prepare for preaching. In a world of P.A. systems and YouTube videos, that hardly seemed helpful. So what could I do to prepare?
I wish someone would have told me to learn to communicate effectively.
An occasional failure in communication is fine. A lifestyle of poor communication is devastating. And a cross-cultural worker without communication skills is a disaster. A World Evangelical Alliance study found that the number one reason why cross-cultural workers return home is conflict with peers. Poor communication plays into this tragic statistic.
Have you ever wondered why some people can get their point across much easier than others? Some people speak and everyone follows along. Others seem to jump precipitously from one point to another, leaving their audience confused. The difference between the two comes down to communication skills, the ability to effectively take what one cares about and help others to think the same way.
God empowers us to share his message throughout the world, and he also calls to care about communicating that message well. Becoming a great communicator takes study, practice, and a good attitude. I will briefly explain what I mean by each term and will suggest how you can prepare to fill your future role in God’s kingdom. Although this is especially applicable to cross-cultural communication, what I’m writing here can apply to preparation for any calling.
Not all we do comes naturally. In fact, the best things in life often take conscious effort to find. Communication involves study—thinking about what it takes to help others understand you. When I say “study,” I hope you don’t only think of 8th-graders frenetically memorizing lists of dates before the history finals. Study happens in all of life, and those who are most successful in their work or hobbies are the ones who find every opportunity to read books, watch videos, and learn from professionals.
Can communication be studied? Absolutely. Here are two quick resources that you can use to further your written and verbal communication:
- Anne Curzan’s course: “How Conversation Works: 6 Lessons for Better Communication.” This is a fantastic, short “The Teaching Company” course that includes a variety of tips on better communication.
- Randy Newman’s “Questioning Evangelism.” I was introduced to this book a couple of years ago, and it soon catapulted to the top of my list of books on communication. Newman’s focus is on evangelism, but his words are applicable in any setting.
You might think communication is something that just a few lucky people are good at. Although there are people who have natural talent in this area, communication is a skill to be learned, and that involves serious practice. How do you practice something like communication without being awkward? After all, isn’t one just supposed to know how to talk?
Remember that first time you took the wheel while your mom sweated next to you? You had to think about how hard to press the accelerator, how much to brake around turns, how to turn on the blinker without veering off the road… But now you don’t need to think about those things. Communication is just like learning to drive: although in the beginning you think through every step, after a while it becomes second nature.
Maybe you’re wondering what about communication can be practiced? Here are some communication tips that you can work on. Remember, practice goes with study—one cannot practice what she has not studied.
- Listen more than you speak.
Although we might feel that speaking is the best way to hone the art of convincing, we must also learn to listen to others who are better communicators. Watching and listening to the best public speakers has shaped the way I speak, and learning from those mentors who could best relate to me has transformed the way I relate to friends. Practice the art of listening to others, looking for the reasons why someone is effective. Then repeat their tactics.
- Write things down.
Does that sound like something that only senior citizens with ailing memory do? It’s not. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to write down the best of what others say in conversation. Not only does it show that you’re engaged and honor the other person, you’re much more likely to remember that key idea that your friend gave. Also, preparing for conversations before leaving by writing down a few ideas to discuss may seem childish, but it’ll help you be more interesting.
- Frame your thoughts in questions instead of statements.
This is a lifelong pursuit for me. It’s easy enough to state everything I think on a subject. But the highest level of communication is knowing precisely what you believe and helping the other person to realize it before you say it yourself.
Once you have learned a new tip for better communication, practice it. Make a note or reminder on your phone to remember to use that tip. The difference between greater or lesser communication may be simpler than you thought.
A Good Attitude
It’s not only reading books and listening to TED talks that will help you become a better communicator. If you don’t have a learner’s attitude, you’ll find it hard to grow in your conversational ability. I’ve found it important to learn to forgive myself when I make mistakes. We all are awkward sometimes, and we all say things that we wish we wouldn’t have said. But if we allow those mistakes to take over our thinking, we become paralyzed and it’s harder to do better next time. Christians have the unique ability to move on from mistakes, since we don’t need to rely on ourselves for our identity.
When I mess up and say something or do something in a conversational setting that was misplaced or awkward, it is so helpful for me to talk to God about it. I find peace in reminding myself that making mistakes is part of being finite, and in thanking God for the fact that His love for His children never stops. This is one small aspect of what it means to have a good attitude in communication.
Whatever your current level of communication ability is, you can learn from others and increase your skill. Communicating across language and cultural barriers makes preparation especially important, so take communication seriously and enjoy studying and practicing it with a good attitude.