Photo by Christina Beckmann

Photo by Christina Beckmann



Sometimes teams just seem to come together, find a rhythm and achieve great things. Other times they don't. I have spent the majority of the past 15 years working in cross cultural teams, many of them simply miraculous in the fact that the function at all, let alone achieve great things. Imagine a woman from Alaska (me), a guy from a rural state in Brazil, another guy from France, one from Portugal, a Brit, a Palestinian and a collection of people from both urban and rural parts of Jordan all coming together to try and create a new governing standard for a valuable emerging business sector. The diversity of experience, language, geography, and perspective could not be more extreme.

The first thing I notice in situations like this is how tiring it can be to listen. Everyone has to really work hard to understand one another. Looking around the table I will see everyone leaning forward, straining to comprehend. Ironically, the fact that people can't speak or listen in their native language may improve their listening skills. If your native language is Arabic, and you find yourself in a situation needing to work with another person whose native language is Portuguese, and the other people on the team speak neither Arabic nor Portuguese, but everyone speaks English - at least a little - then the team will settle on English as the common language. And then the close listening begins, because maybe only a couple people have English as a first language.  

Close listening means we're all studying each other's faces, body language, and tone. This helps incredibly with empathy. And as I mentioned above, it also tires everyone out pretty quick. And as people tire, they also tend to relax a little. Jokes creep in. People take breaks, go for food, coffee, cigarettes. And over a few weeks of this, relationships form and a real team emerges.

The magic dust that makes these teams work is the feelings people have toward each other. This mutual regard, these feelings of friendship are forged through this intense listening. They can help teams overcome setbacks, encourage creativity, and accomplish surprising things, even in the most unlikely circumstances. 

Christina Beckmann