Giving feedback in an intercultural context

Updated: Oct 11



Feedback is a valuable tool that is useful for a wide variety of situations, for example at work, as a leader and in our personal lives – and also when coaching others. Done well, feedback builds stronger relationships, improves performance, and has a positive impact on goal achievement. When poorly communicated or delivered ineffectively, it can lead to confusion and misunderstandings, so we need to get it right.


One factor that plays a major part in how we deliver, and how we receive feedback, is our cultural drivers. But how often do you consider the intercultural context in which you are giving your feedback?


The Trouble with Feedback (from an Intercultural perspective)


How our feedback is given – and received – is almost certainly influenced by our personal cultural makeup. To complicate things further, although you can make some assumptions based on nationality, in reality we cannot assume your cultural preferences by knowing where you are from.


In fact, we are all unique cultural beings based on our own personal blend of the three different worldviews: Innocence / Guilt (IG), Honor / Shame (HS) and Power / Fear (PF) as well as the finer distinctions of the 12 different dimensions of culture.


When we deliver feedback, we tend to do so according to how we would like to receive it and aligned with our own preferences. This means that we often disregard the other person’s cultural viewpoint and our feedback may not land well from the other person’s cultural perspective. This is where most models for giving feedback fail - mainly because they do not help those giving feedback to structure it in a culturally agile way.


The Complexities of Intercultural Feedback


The majority of coaches are from the western world and are therefore more likely to have a more IG-oriented approach and most systems of coaching are built from an Innocence / Guilt worldview perspective too. Whether you are giving feedback to your coachees and clients or giving guidance to others on how to give feedback, this can lead to a bias in your approach to feedback. Here are some things that are useful to notice and consider when giving feedback.


Direct vs Indirect Communication


Those who are more IG-oriented can often tend to lean towards being more direct in their communication style, whereas people or cultures with a more Honor / Shame or Power / Fear approach would tend to be more indirect when communicating. To those who prefer an indirect style of communication, direct communicators can come across as unsophisticated and unprofessional, whilst direct communicators might become frustrated that indirect communicators don’t “say it as it is”.



Individual vs Community Accountability


Those with an IG approach can find it easier to separate the behavior from the person, meaning that for them feedback is not seen as something that is personal. But this is much harder for someone from more HS or PF approaches as they generally have a much more community accountability mindset, which means that they feel much more attached to who they are within their community. Feedback that is directed at them as a person can feel more like an attack on them and they are unlikely to receive it well.


Problem vs Relationship


A major cultural difference in giving feedback is related to the intention of giving feedback – whether solving the problem lies at the center of giving the feedback or is building the relationship the intention. People who have a higher level of IG will be more focused on resolving the issue at hand whereas those with more of a community focus will focus on the relationship.


Developing your intercultural feedback communication style


So now that we have looked at some of the intercultural difficulties that come up when we are delivering feedback to those from different intercultural backgrounds, hopefully we have been able to highlight the benefits of packaging your feedback in a culturally agile way. We would encourage you to play around with direct and indirect communication to help you deliver feedback, and to communicate more effectively all round.


Particularly for those who lean towards a more direct communication approach, it takes more time and can be difficult to learn to communicate more indirectly but learning this will enhance your ability to deliver feedback and to communicate effectively. Ask yourself, how do I wish to be seen in my relationships with others.


Here are some strategies and tips to help you with improving your intercultural communication when giving feedback:



The Three Colors Litmus Test


If you are not sure where someone sits from a cultural point of view, prior to delivering feedback you can run what you are going to say through the Three Colors Litmus Test.

This will mean that you are being more mindful in your communication and have a better chance of successfully delivering feedback. The Three Colors Litmus Test consists of asking yourself 3 questions:

When I give my feedback this way:

1. Will it do right by this person, and am I doing it for the right reasons

2. Will it honor them

3. Will it be received as empowering and life-giving?


When someone is giving feedback to you and it doesn’t land well, remind yourself that perhaps they have a different cultural worldview than your own and you can work to understand that. At the same time, you can help them to give feedback to you in a more useful way.


The NPM / DIR model

The NPM / DIR model focuses on helping us to slow down in our conversation, while also separating out the parts of what we want to communicate to be clearer. By focusing on this model it naturally leads us to be more culturally agile in our approach to feedback and it will help you improve your communication style no matter where your natural inclination lies.



1. Describe the Actions– When you separate description from interpretation, it can neutralise the emotion that can be triggered when you draw conclusions. By describing only what is actually seen without interpreting, you create emotional space allowing more exploration to take place.

2. Describe the Impact – Talking about the impact on you (in terms of your thoughts and feelings) is a form of indirect communication and so focusing on describing the impact on you is more of a third person approach. This approach makes it easier for those who are indirect communicators to accept the feedback and also makes it easier to accept the feedback for those to whom community accountability is important.

3. Interpret & Respond – Allow them to interpret and respond to the feedback through their own thoughts and feelings. By having gone through the above steps you have allowed them space before responding.


Storytelling


Being able to capture the lesson of feedback in a story can be a useful way to help indirect communicators to accept feedback without negative or shaming feelings arising. To do this, you could describe a similar situation and then allow the other person to respond and make the connection for themselves by asking them what sorts of feelings arise in them.


Put the relationship at the center of the feedback


Instead of focusing purely on how the problem is going to be resolved, ask yourself how you can craft the feedback so that the other person can find a way to grow either within themselves or within the relationship. By putting the relationship first, you will find that this requires a bit more of an indirect approach, but it will produce more powerful results.


More on Intercultural Communication & Feedback


If you want to understand the three cultural drivers and the 12 dimensions in more detail and to find out your own cultural makeup you can read more here:

Three Colors of Worldview and

12 Dimensions of Culture


Learn more about the NPA Feedback model here.


If you would like to keep developing your intercultural coaching skills, you can join our next Certificate in Intercultural Coaching.


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