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Advice line - Making sense of the message

Birgit Mueller-Winkler discusses the difficulties in communicating across cultural divides.

We all occasionally experience communication exchanges in which we are not sure what the person speaking to us really wants to say.

There is much more to communication than just the words we speak. Reading between the lines can be tricky. Appeals, questions and comments can be disguised in many ways.

If we come from the same cultural background we (generally) manage to decipher the sender’s information and know how to take it.

This gets more difficult if the two people trying to communicate come from diverse cultural backgrounds with different communication rules.

Even people using the same native language might experience communication challenges: asking an American man to remove his pants before physiotherapy is somewhat different from asking a British man to do the same.

Moreover, non-verbal communication, such as body language or personal space, can create further pitfalls.

In our professional life we may be confronted with exactly these issues when communicating with patients from a different cultural background.

With the UK’s diverse society we are also very likely to work in a multicultural professional team. Do we really communicate sensitively and effectively with our colleagues and patients?

Of all complaints to the Health and Care Professions Council in 2011 to 2012, 77 per cent were reported to concern professionals’ ‘misconduct’. Clearly, unprofessional behaviour is about more than just inappropriate communication, but communication is often a significant contributory factor.

We might sometimes assume that the person we are talking to (patient, colleague or manager) can easily interpret our message.

We can also use ‘paraphrasing’ – summarising and repeating back to the person – to make sure we have understood the message’s subtleties.

Lots of research and resources are available on the topic, but the important step is to bring a certain amount of tolerance, patience and sensitivity to our culturally-challenging communications.

The aim is to avoid misunderstandings and reduce frustrating experiences.

Check out the following CSP resources for more information:Information resources on cultural diversity and cultural competence.

Visit: and search for ‘cultural competence’.

There is also a chapter on cultural competence in a CSP pack on managing performance. Visit: and search for ‘managing performance’.

Birgit Mueller-Winkler is a professional adviser with the CSP

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