How to Effectively Communicate While Volunteering Overseas

Mark Horoszowski

Mark is the Co-founder of MovingWorlds.org, a global platform connecting people who want to volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations.

The foundation of every successful relationship is communication, and international volunteering relationships are no different. cultural-communication It’s not uncommon for many of us to have communication “hiccups” while at home. It comes as no surprise that these hiccups can intensity when traveling overseas for many reasons: Like different languages, new industries, and diverse cultures. These things can easily strain our ability to communicate, and ultimately stand in the way of a successful partnership that creates positive change for all parties.

At MovingWorlds, we have helped skilled professionals volunteer thousands of hours of their skills around the world and have learned some valuable tips to help you communicate effectively while volunteering overseas. The most important thing is to spend time listening and observing:

Seek first to understand,
and then to be understood

-Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

When it is your time to speak, here are some tips on how communication can be used to build relationships and solve problems:

Using Communication to Build Relationships with the 4 C‘s

Using Communication to Resolve Challenges with the 3 R‘s

  1. Courteous
  2. Consistent
  3. Concise
  4. Clear
  1. Restate
  2. Reflect
  3. Reframe

 

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMMUNICATION: The 4 C‘s

Building Relationships Tip #1: Courteous

Courteous communication begins with the assumption that you are equal partners, and when done correctly, creates a foundation for healthy dialog. When volunteering overseas, we often see that volunteers can take a “know it all” approach or worse, a stance of “superiority” because they might have more financial means. A lack of courtesy in communication will sour a relationship before it starts. But if you understand that you both are brining valuable pieces to your relationship, then you can sit at the table as equals. To ensure courteous communication, make sure to be:

  • Empathetic and understanding of where your partner is coming from
  • On-time for your meetings
  • Thankful and complimentary
  • Genuinely excited
  • Expressive of your appreciation
  • Affirming and have warm body language

 

Building Relationships Tip #2: Consistent

By being consistent in your communication, you will build trust faster. Try to be predictable in the following things:

  • You are right, a lot. As in you make statements based on fact and share things that are true and accurate
  • You are on time. Your partner knows when you will be available
  • You have a predictable tone and voice. You partner will build trust with you knowing that you are a level person

Building Relationships Tip #3: Concise

If an organization has enlisted your skills as a volunteer, it is likely that it is resource strapped in terms of time and money. While taking the time to communicate consistently so you have a working relationship is valuable, it is also vital to respect your partner’s time. Try to avoid being long-winded by:

  • Removing filler words (like, and, in addition, etc.)
  • Avoiding long examples
  • Not Repeating the same thing in different ways
  • Avoiding anecdotes
  • Providing clear next steps after all your meetings
  • Delivering what you promise

The ultimate rule for concise communication: listen more than you speak


Building Relationships Tip #4: Clear

Being clear in your communication is especially important when volunteering with organizations and representatives from other cultures. It is all too common for slang, industry speak, and acronyms to make their way into communication. Keep in mind that some cultures are very agreeable (in that the people will often agree with you, even if they don’t understand or disagree) and some other cultures are very skeptical (in that the people will frequently present an opposing view). As such, it is important to be as clear as possible.

  • Avoid slang, acronyms, and tangents
  • Check for understanding
  • Provide relevant examples whenever possible

 

 

RESOLVING CHALLENGES WITH COMMUNICATION: The 3 R’s

Occasionally, you might encounter personal or business challenges while volunteering overseas. As both you and the hosting organization have committed time and resources in your relationship, you should try and do everything you can to work through, no matter how big or small. Here are the 3R’s to help you:

Resolving Challenges Tip #1: Restating

After listing to the other party, before trying to express your side try to first restate and then summarize the issue:

Restating

This is when you repeat the main idea again (with same words or different), that the speaker was trying to convey in order to achieve greater clarity. Sometimes there is confusion in communication, especially in different cultural contexts. Restating allows you to make sure you grasped the concept the speaker was trying to present. For example, “I can’t sleep! I stay awake all night!” can be restated into “You have a difficulty sleeping.”

Summarizing

After you hear what the speaker has expressed, provide a concise overview of what you heard back to the speaker, utilizing the same language they did. This allows the person to know you fully heard them.  This shows you understand the speaker’s needs and are listening by re stating what they said, but using different words, your own words. This has the added benefit of providing greater clarity, in case something is misunderstood. For example

“These seem to be the main points you have covered so far…” (facts) and:

“I hear that you are very troubled about not knowing what to expect….” (feelings)


Resolving Challenges Tip #2: Reflecting

Reflective listening involves

  1. Attempting to understand a speaker’s idea, then
  2. Offering the idea back to the speaker using your own words (without judgment and assumptions of any facts) to confirm the idea has been understood correctly.

This is the belief that the capacity for self-insight, problem solving, and growth resides primarily in the speaker. This means that the central questions for you the listener are not ‘What can I do for this person? or even “How do I see this person” but rather “How does this person see themselves and their situation?” Examples of ways that you can reflect back to a speaker include:

  • So you feel…
  • You’re wondering if…
  • It sounds like you…
  • If I understand you correctly…
  • I hear you are saying… is that right?
  • Let me review what I have heard you say… Please correct me if I leave anything out.

 

Resolving Challenges Tip #3: Reframing

Reframing is the act of taking a situation, event, and/or interaction that your partner expresses feelings about and exploring alternative ways to view it. This is most common in instances when there are feelings of negativity and involves you acknowledging your partner’s feelings, asking questions to further understand your partner’s emotions, and working together to “reframe” the situation in hopes of changing the way your partner is feeling.

Reframing aims to shift to a forward-looking positive frame (opportunity) that is more positive.


 

In Summary

Communication is most productive when you are in a trusted partnership and you spend more time listening than talking. Or, in the words of Ernst Hemingway:

Before you act, LISTEN
Before you react, THINK

 

 

The 4C’s was in-part inspired by this: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCS_85.htm
The 3R’s were in part inspire by: http://changingminds.org/techniques/listening/active_listening.htm and
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/high-octane-women/201304/the-3-cs-effective-communication

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