4 Tips to Improve Your Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Multicultural group of people sitting around table

 

 

The law is complex, and it can be difficult to explain its processes to native English speakers. So how do you manage this when you're working with a client from another culture? Or if your client has a poor understanding of English? This can be a challenge for even the most experienced lawyers. We've put together a list of practical steps to help you overcome cultural clashes and serve your clients even better. 

Australia is a multicultural country. There are over 7.5 million migrants living in Australia and around one-third of the population was born overseas. Unsurprisingly, this diversity is also reflected in the client base that lawyers see each day.

Even clients who speak English as their native language can have difficulties understanding the complexities of legislation and judicial processes. Working with clients from another culture can often add further challenges. Yet, as a lawyer, it's your job to help your clients navigate the legal system - no matter their culture. And to do this lawyers must develop cross-cultural communication skills. The cultural clashes that arise if you fail to do this can have serious consequences. Not only does this lead to poor communication and damaged relationships between lawyer and client but failure to manage cultural differences can even affect the outcome of court proceedings

Luckily, cross-cultural communication skills are something every lawyer can learn. We've put together steps you can take today to help you overcome cross-cultural communication barriers. These tips will help you understand, communicate, and build an even stronger relationship with your clients from different cultural backgrounds. 

 

Tips to overcome cross-cultural communication barriers

1. Research etiquette and customs 

All cultures around the world have different etiquette which impact the way they communicate. You want to make sure to make a good impression when you're meeting a client for the first time - so why not invest the time to do a bit of research? 

 

Greetings

It might seem trivial at first glance, but understanding how to greet your client appropriately can help you to make a good first impression and avoid misunderstandings.

Most people born in Australia are used to shaking hands in greeting in business settings. But don't be surprised if a client from Spain, Italy, or France gives you a quick kiss on each cheek - even if it's in a professional setting. If you're meeting a client from Japan they might greet you with a bow. 

If you research how to greet your client appropriately, you’ll reduce the risk of any embarrassing moments and give yourself a better chance of making a strong first impression. 

Woman and man sitting at a table and shaking hands

 

Names and pronunciation

Have you ever been in a situation where someone has constantly mispronounced your name? If you have, then you know how frustrating this can be. Names are very personal and a big part of making a good first impression is knowing how to pronounce your client's name correctly. 

If you're unsure, just ask. Most likely, your client will be happy that you're trying to get it right and putting in the extra effort.

On the subject of names and pronunciation, it's also important to know the correct way to address your client. In China, they reverse the family name and the given name. In Japan, they often add "san" to the end of names and occupation titles as a sign of respect. You can be considered as impolite if you use the terms incorrectly, so it is always best to check what is expected.

 

2. Language Barriers

If English is not your client's native language, it’s reasonable to expect there will be language barriers to overcome. Even if your client is fluent in English and has a wide vocabulary, you should not assume they are familiar with legal terminology. It’s also important to consider the following points.

 

Slang

Australians often use slang when they talk, even in professional settings. But not even the most proficient non-native English speakers will have a comprehensive understanding of all English slang, idioms, and sayings. So to avoid confusion and misunderstandings stay away from slang. 

 

Talking speed

If you have a natural tendency to talk fast, try to slow down. Speak clearly and take care to pronounce words correctly. This way your listener will have more time to translate and digest your words. You can even pause between sentences to give them a chance to process what you are saying. Your client will feel calmer and you will feel more confident that they have understood what you just said. 

 

Word choice

Lawyers sometimes use overly complicated or long words. In cross-cultural conversations, there's no need to make it harder for your client by using "big" words. For example, instead of saying “Please do this in an efficacious manner” say “Please do this quickly". 

You should also steer clear of humour. Humour is often culture-specific, and what you think is funny might be offensive to someone from another culture. 

Two women talking in front of computer

 

3. Phrasing questions

When you're talking with a non-native English speaker, it's important to be aware of the way you're phrasing your questions. 

 

Open-ended questions

As much as possible, avoid phrasing a question so your client can answer it with a "yes" or "no". Instead, use open-ended questions as much as possible. Open-ended questions allow your client to provide more context and understanding of what they are experiencing - something that otherwise can get lost if you ask lots of closed questions. 

 

Double questions 

"Do you want to carry on or shall we stop here?" is a natural way of phrasing a question in the English language. However, in a cross-cultural situation, it can confuse your listener. What happens if they only understand one part of the question? And how can you know which part? You ask a question with the intention of clarifying something but instead you inadvertently add even more confusion. Try separating your questions and asking them one at a time to avoid the double-question trap.

 

4. Active listening

Active listening is a big building block in becoming an effective communicator. If you're a strong active listener, you’ll be in a great position to build strong rapport with your clients, and an even stronger level of trust. 

 

Interpret body language

A big part of being an active listener is being able to interpret body language. But body language and mannerisms differ among cultures

A clear example is eye-contact. In Western cultures, if a client doesn't make eye-contact this can indicate shame or deception. But in other cultures, a lack of eye-contact can be a sign of respect for the lawyer's higher status. 

Nodding is another great example. In some cultures, nodding signifies the person agrees with you. In other cultures, it simply means “I hear what you are saying”. 

It is important to keep differences like these in mind when you are interacting with clients, because how you interpret their body language can have significant consequences. 

 

Feedback

Asking questions, providing - and asking - for feedback are powerful ways of improving communication between you and your client. But in a cross-cultural situation, it's also a tool to ensure that as little as possible gets lost in translation. 

Make it a habit to paraphrase what your client has said and follow up with clarifying questions. This way, you can be sure you have not missed important pieces of information and that you've understood your client correctly. 

 

Take notes 

Anxious clients are less likely to retain information. Not only is this stressful for the client but also for you as a lawyer - as you can't be 100% confident they have understood you properly. 

Make it a habit to take notes of the most important matters you discussed during each meeting to send to your client afterwards. This way, they will have a summary to refer back to. It also gives them an opportunity to process what was discussed at their own speed, and follow up with questions later on. 


Working with clients in a cross-cultural context can add an extra layer of complexity in the lawyer-client relationship. With these practical tips, you'll be well on your way to developing your cross-cultural communication skills so you can communicate better, build trust, and serve your clients even better.

 

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