Monday, 16 March 2009

Cross cultural management and mirroring

What I always felt to be true, now gets support from neuroscience. We understand other people because we mirror their behaviour in our brains, not because we can find the deeper meaning of what they do in terms of underlying values and concepts. Understanding other people is based on the activity of brain cells that 'copy' what the other person does, so that we feel what the other person experiences. This is the essence of Marco Jacoboni's book 'Mirroring People'. The 'mirroring' concept gives an attractive alternative to the sender-receiver model of communication, in which people pack meaning in words and gestures, and others unpack these messages to find the meaning. Many texts on cross-cultural communication are based on this model. Since people encode their meaning in different ways, we need to unravel the cultural code to understand what they really mean. The popular model of the 'onion', also used by Hofstede, where we have to peel one layer after the other to find the essence deep inside, is consistent with the classical model of communication. Yet, this isn't at all the way I learn to communicate with people in other cultures. Effective communication with someone from another culture is more like learning to dance a new dance: you must know what movements you should make and how they fit in with those of your partner. Maybe there is a deeper 'meaning' in the dance, but that is not your first problem. Communicating with people from other cultures begins with the observation of behaviour, with imitation and small experiments: what will happen if I... Slowly the participants in such an exchange begin to develop a pattern that makes sense. The concept of 'mirroring' of neuroscience is useful here. In my brains I form a mirror of the behaviour of the other person, and doing so I begin to participate in his or her thoughts and feelings. I have this experience when trying to participate in practices that are in some way alien to myself, like burning incense in a Buddhist temple or actively watching a bullfight in Spain. Through this participation you discover sense in what goes on.

This idea should be the core of cross-cultural training. Rather that making abstract images of the culture of other people, unpeeling onions of meanings and trying to find deeper meanings and values, we should stimulate people to participate in each other's behaviour by observation, imitation and experiment. This idea is not new. It was the core of George Herbert Mead's idea of 'taking the role of the other' which now gets a new formulation in the language of neuroscience.