Mentoring Cross-Culturally

Mentoring Cross-Culturally

Seventy percent of all communication happens at the non-verbal cultural level.  This means that the moment we are involved in mentoring people cross-culturally we have dramatically increased our chances for misunderstanding, failure, loss of relationship, and poor results from the mentoring relationship.

Some of you are thinking that you don’t mentor cross-culturally.  But, in fact, you do!  Every family has a culture.  Every generation has a culture, thus the generation gap.  Every organization has a culture.  There are even cultural differences between genders.  Words, phrases, and gestures in one group may have no meaning, a different meaning, or even the opposite meaning intended when used with other groups.   Language learners don’t understand the cultural nuances of their new language, so words or phrases that may have multiple and diverse meanings in various situations may only have one simple meaning that is not intended or understood at the moment.

We all learn to communicate in multiple and various cultures.  Most of these cultures are closely related to us, or we have been in them so long we know the nuances of the communication systems.  But this is not the case when there is a significant language or dialectic change.  Me have to learn everything, and this opens us up for mistakes.

Mentoring is impossible without communication.  We may be skilled in multiple cultures, but each cultural distinctive distorts communication.  Mentors recognize this, and make sure to use communication techniques that minimize the use of non-verbal and/or cultural level communication.  They also make sure that language learners understand what is being said.  It is the communicator’s responsibility to make sure the receiver of the communication received the information accurately and completely, including emotional content.

The greatest cultural barrier is when the mentor and mentoree have different heart languages and cultures.  Either one, or both, may be learning the other’s language and culture.  Cultural level communication just does not work in these situations, yet all of us keep sending the cultural signals intentionally or unintentionally.  What may send a signal of misunderstanding or anger in one culture may have no meaning to another culture.  This cripples our communication.  It can cause misunderstanding, conflict, and even broken relationships.  Hints, innuendos, sarcasm, and common cultural facial expressions or gestures can all go unnoticed or misinterpreted.  In cross-cultural settings we need to consciously minimize the use of jargon, gestures, and facial expressions that may blur what we want to communicate.  Use your words, and check that they were understood before moving on in the conversation.  Keep the language simple, even when trying to explain complex ideas.

In cross-cultural mentoring situations it is extremely important to teach, train, and equip by example and by the use of questions instead of statements.  When statements are made, clarifying questions are asked to check if the person understood what was said.  Mentoring cross-culturally is a dance in which each partner exchanges the lead role many times each minute.  The moment we ask a question we transfer lead to the other person to make a statement or ask more questions.  This process of statement-questions-statement-questions allows us to make sure that concepts and principles are transmitted and received as error free as possible.

To assume that the person you are mentoring understands what you are saying because he or she is nodded their head or even repeated the sentence back to you does not guarantee that they understand.  Over the years I have agreed with statements I thought I was understanding only to find out I bought the Golden Gate Bridge.  There is a high price to be paid in these situations.  And you may laugh about it later, but in the moment it’s not fun.

A good way to check understanding is to ask people to give an example of what they understand us to be saying.  They may have repeated our sentences accurately in their own words, but when we ask them to give an example of the concept from their experience, or to make up an example to demonstrate the principle, you will quickly learn if you were understood or not.

It is always better to clarify before action rather than adjust or correct after an action.  People always appreciate clarification.  I don’t know anyone who enjoys correction.  And since mentoring is about relationships, the more clarification and the less correcting we do will result in deeper and more meaningful relationships that will bear fruit.


David Watson
somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea

One Reply to “Mentoring Cross-Culturally”

  1. Thanks David,

    My CPM Staff and I had gone together as a team through all the postings you did on mentoring and it is very helpfull. We are now going through all the scriptures and will meet in a week to discuss them I will share the latest with them today and with so many cultures here in the Bay Area, there's much to apply here.



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