Spreading gift of clear communication

By Anna Campbell

Some time ago, I was visiting a family in China who are good friends and who have assisted me with some business endeavours. As a sign of my appreciation, I gave each family member a gift.

The gift I gave the son (who was in his 20s) was a rather trendy looking green cap. He looked quite shocked at my gift and thank goodness he knew me well enough to tell me why it was an inappropriate present.

You see, if a male in China wears a green hat, it signifies his wife is cheating on him! Imagine my embarrassed roar of laughter when I realised what I had done, especially as his fiancee was sitting right beside me!

Moments like that are great when you can laugh together about them afterwards, but I often wonder, how many more moments like that I have created in blissful ignorance of a trail of offence I have left behind.

Cross-cultural traps are obvious ones to try to avoid. Many years ago, I remember hearing from someone who was involved in ambassador training for New Zealanders gaining positions offshore.

He said the ambassadors who struggled the most were those who were placed in Australia.

The main reason was that when ambassadors went to more far-flung countries, they invested more time into understanding the cultural differences between the countries, but when people went to Australia, they assumed it was the same as New Zealand and turned up having done very little preparation.

From my own time living in Australia, I think I was offended more by Australians than the other way around. We Kiwis can be a bit defensive and soft when up against the Aussie teasing machine!

In the workplace, simple communication, appreciation of differences and a willingness to work things out can go such a long way. In order to enhance communications in the workplace, I was recommended to read a book Making the Connections, by Bill Quirke.

The book has a corporate focus, but many of the messages made sense. The main message I took from the book, was that when people communicate, often they will communicate what they are interested in without adjusting the message for who they are speaking to and what is relevant for that person.

What a manager should be aiming for is 30% vision and values and 70% WIFM (what's in it for me - in other words what's in it for the other person). Thinking about WIFM for communications is vital, whether we are introducing a new policy, instructions or sharing a vision.

My other favourite read on communication comes from Eric Schmidt, one of Google's founders on their company philosophy with regards to communication: ''When it comes to communication, default to open. Maximise the velocity and volume of information flow.''

To be an open communicator means we need to practice empathy by walking in others' shoes and evaluate how we communicate to people from all walks of life, those from far-flung countries, our own workmates and our families.

Most importantly, we must be willing to be open and share our concerns, our visions and our dreams. In my view, secrecy, covert hierarchy and hidden agendas lead to poor communication and are the death knells for organisational and personal wellbeing.

This article was published in a fortnightly column for the Otago Daily Times opinion page here