Intercultural Communication Training: a research on the importance of ‘shared understanding’ regarding professional concepts, terminology and situations in intercultural collaboration settings
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Intercultural training, among other topics, implies intercultural communication mostly linked with the existing cultural differences between the communicating parties. In this master thesis I question however, whether in intercultural collaboration, misunderstanding occurs because of these cultural differences or because of the mutual assumption members of a same profession held regarding concepts and terminology related to their work. Since experts share an identical identity -their professional background- with their colleagues in the host country, they might assume a shared understanding on related concepts and terminology and act accordingly to implement their tasks. The mutual assumption of a shared understanding on professional concepts / terminology could be the pitfall for misunderstanding. Successful communication presumes that the speaker’s intention -in transferring a message- is the same as the meaning the listener(s) attributes to the message. In case the speaker and the listener share the same ideas, experiences, and/or frames of references, communication will not meet many problems. Habermas (quoted by Kunneman, 1983) distinguished meaning giving related to life world and meaning giving related to system. He argues that in interaction, people interpret the topics discussed in relation to the context they live and work in -their cultural and historical backgrounds- and labelled this context ‘life world’ (private and public organizations). In the way ‘Western’ experts communicate, life world might be in competition with ‘system’ (dominated by economic and administrative organizations). For their colleagues, living in societies that are more traditional however, system might be less developed and life world could still be playing an important role in professional settings. To restore the balance between life world and system in communication, creation of a shared understanding – a shared language for system and life world- is of great importance. Shared understanding can only be created through true dialoguing. In case, no dialogues take place between the actors involved in communicative actions, misunderstandings risk occurring. In this thesis, I argue that the art of creating shared understanding –dialoguing- should be an integrated part of the intercultural training experts receive before being sent to developing countries. Training experts in the facilitation of dialogues with their colleagues in order to create shared understanding –shared language of system and life world- to avoid or overcome misunderstandings is scarcely subject of intercultural training. Though training in notably technical skills and belief in the mission of the assignment might –if not correctly decoded- lead to pseudo understanding resulting in misunderstanding. In the frame of this research project, a well-structured opinion forming process with an expert panel -a Delphi survey- was facilitated resulting in a coherent set of basic assumptions and recommendations for an improved communication in intercultural collaboration settings. The information from the panel provided clear responses on the research questions: 1) Besides the often-quoted cultural differences as cause of misunderstandings in professional intercultural communication /collaboration situations, what is the role of the mutual assumption of shared understanding regarding concepts and terminology related to the profession both parties share? 2) Since both parties are not trained on misunderstandings caused by a mutual assumption of a shared understanding of professional concepts / terminology, they are likely not to be recognized in an early stage of the collaboration process. Might it be that this type of misunderstandings effects project / tasks implementations even more negatively than the often-quoted cultural differences? Panel members not only confirmed the importance of creating shared understanding on related concepts and terminology, they also recognized the importance of shared understanding on professional situations and the status related to the positions / functions the different actors held. In their analysis, several panel members distinguished different stages in communication and/or collaboration processes - idea presentation stage - decision- making stage -, and implementation stage- confirming that misunderstandings caused by an assumed shared understanding are likely not to be recognized in an early stage of the collaboration process. These misunderstandings effect project / tasks implementations even more negatively than the often-quoted cultural differences. As integral part of the survey, the panel experimented with an analytical framework enabling actors in intercultural situation to not only analyse intercultural misunderstandings, but to enable them to avoid or to ‘go beyond’ such misunderstandings. Their recommendations for the use of this framework enable the development of a valuable tool for intercultural communication training.