During our monthly webinar, attended by people working in academia, NGOs, private enterprise, and a religious community, and geographically from Russia to Egypt to the USA and quite a few points in between, one of the participants summarized for us what she had learned. Cultural Detective had taught her, she said, “that actions don’t ‘create’ reactions; interpretation of actions creates reactions.”
Yes! That is brilliant and powerful learning! And it is crucial to understand this idea if we are to develop intercultural competence. It is a prerequisite to implementing the four steps to a happier life.
“Actions don’t ‘create’ reactions.
Interpretation of actions creates reactions.”
Your Story/My Story
To understand the concept better, think about a time when you had a painful miscommunication with someone, the type of miscommunication that haunts you for days or longer. The example I’ll share with you involves a family member, but yours might involve a friend, family member, important client, or colleague. Got your example? Okay, here’s mine.
Recently, a family member took exception to a text I sent him. It was classic miscommunication. He felt I had jumped to conclusions about him, specifically, that I had falsely accused him of wrongdoing. His negative judgments and assumptions about me made me sad. This is common; there is a downward spiral that so often happens in miscommunication. We want our family, friends, colleagues, and clients to give us benefit of the doubt, to assume we have their backs. It is upsetting when, instead, they think the worst of us.
Communication is a shared process. We send our messages and usually assume that the receivers of our messages understand us. But does our intention, the meaning, as conveyed by our message match the other’s interpretation? This, of course, is the crux of successful communication!
Think about your own example. What happened? How did each of you perceive the miscommunication? How did each of you feel? What was the outcome?
My relative’s upset was real, as was mine. We can’t and shouldn’t deny our feelings and our reactions. Yet, it was especially important to me that, as a family member, we not feel negatively toward one another. One good outcome of the exchange was that I learned something new about him, and now understand an area of sensitivity for him. That knowledge will inform my future interactions, and hopefully help me to communicate with him in ways he finds more supportive. I am confident that he learned something that will inform his future communication with me, as well.
So, did my text “cause” him pain? Did his response “cause” me sadness? Did our differing communication styles “cause” frustration? No, of course not! It is the manner in which we interpret differing communication styles that can cause us frustration and can waste our time, energy, enthusiasm and resources. Your mother may have told you when you were young that your friends can not make you angry; it’s your choice to become angry or not. Differing communication styles can actually strengthen teamwork, and they can add delight to friendships.
Now, think about your example of miscommunication. Did your behavior “cause” negativity for the other person? Did their behavior “cause” it in you? Or, rather, was it the way each of you interpreted the other’s behavior—the meaning you gave to it—that caused the grief?
In my example, there was no negative energy or assumption embedded in the initial text; I had no thought of accusation. Many times, however, our innocent actions result in hurt feelings or negative perceptions, just as they can also help people feel good. In hindsight my text could have been worded better. A lengthier, more explicit text from me (or, better yet, a phone call) may not have “caused” the reaction it did.
However, it was not the text itself but, rather, my relative’s interpretation of the meaning behind my text, that provoked his reaction. We cannot control how others will perceive us, though we can do our best to improve our communication skills. The distinction between behavior causing a reaction versus our interpretation of the behavior influencing us to react in a certain way is an important distinction for cross-cultural and intercultural communication effectiveness.
THE FOUR STEPS TO A HAPPIER LIFE
So, what are these four steps to a happier life, to improving your communication with others?
The first point to remember is that miscommunication happens—every day, even between loving couples, family members, and friends. How much more frequently can miscommunication happen, then, between strangers or those who come from very different cultural backgrounds?
When we find ourselves in an uncomfortable communication situation, we need to remember not to place blame. It’s happened; miscommunication is natural and normal. But we can use it as a learning opportunity—a chance to understand more about ourselves and others.
As the Cultural Detective Method shows us, when we find ourselves involved in miscommunication, or feeling a bit frustrated or judgmental, we are wise to take a look within ourselves. What are my assumptions? What beliefs am I using in my interpretation of events? What does the way I feel tell me about what is important to me? What values do I hold in relation to this situation, and how do I link them to appropriate behavior?
Our past experience and “common sense” (really “personal cultural sense”) cause us to interpret actions in certain ways. Becoming aware of those filters, the ways we view the world, can help us know ourselves better, to be better able to understand and anticipate our own responses, and better able to explain ourselves to others.
Once we’ve taken a look into ourselves, it’s time to try to put ourselves into the shoes of the other. Even though we might perceive behavior as negative, let us temporarily, while we think this through, give the benefit of the doubt. What might be other, positively intended reasons that the person did what they did?
Of course, I can also consider whether I know this person to “have it in” for me. Does this person have a history of attacking me, or of acting unprofessionally? If not, the above “positive intent” exercise becomes even more important.
Finally, it’s time to reach out and take action to resolve the miscommunication. Preferably, this includes a combination of apologies for discomfort, questions that seek to understand, explanation of intent, and summary of what has been learned. It should, also, ideally culminate with a path forward: how we’ll try to communicate more effectively with one another from this point on.
Looking at the above four steps, you will see they incorporate the three capacities that the Cultural Detective Model teaches us:
- Subjective Culture: Knowing ourselves as cultural beings
- Cultural Literacy: Empathy and the ability to “read” the intentions of others
- Cultural Bridging: The ability to bring out the best in ourselves, others, and the organization or community
If you haven’t yet joined us for one of our monthly webinars, please do. Those attending receive a complimentary three-day pass to Cultural Detective Online, a tool that can help you integrate these four steps so that they become second nature in your daily life. And, please, share the invitation with your friends, colleagues, and clients! Let’s make this world a happier and more interculturally effective place!