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Nobody told me that?” How many times has this disclaimer been used, when responding to a problem in the workplace? Poor communication is one of the most cited problems by both employees and managers. Ineffective communication may make or break an organization.

Some of the costs of poor or ineffective communication can include reduced workforce morale, low client or customer satisfaction and fiscal losses. If this isn’t enough, American Indian organizations face additional challenges based on strong differences in cultural dynamics.

Direct and indirect communication: One of the biggest differences in communication between Native culture and American culture is the directness in the messages they send and receive. American Indians in general tend to send messages in a more subtle and passive manner, using both verbal and non-verbal language and we tend to speak around an issue before coming to the point, while American culture promotes directness and assertiveness.

A tribal elder once explained: “It is impolite to push yourself and your interests too aggressively.” It is this reason American Indians are conditioned to use indirect communication; or it stems from other factors. It is most important to acknowledge the differences.

Misreading nonverbal communication: Another common variation in communication between Native culture and American culture is non-verbal language. American Indians use more non-verbal language. This may be due to limited words in Native languages and the number of Native languages spoken.

Problems arise when we make assumptions about non-verbal communication based on what we are used to or taught, such as with eye contact, personal space and voice tone. One example is one culture might believe that speaking in a low, soft tone of voice demonstrates insecurity or poor confidence, while another believes that this tone should be used when demonstrating sincerity and respect.

Which is right? Again, the most important question is “What are the differences?” Identifying differences in communication dynamics may be the key to improving Native organizational systems. However, to be effective in business we may need to learn to use stronger language skills.

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Learning effective communication skills in Native organizations can be a challenge which requires patience and diligence, however, the benefits will far outweigh the effort. Some recommendations for interacting in an environment that is highly influenced by various cultures may include; keeping communication lines open, acknowledging and respecting the differences among cultures, being patient when communicating and seeking feedback to make sure clear messages are being sent and received.

Promoting an open communication climate may be the answer to removing obstacles that create blocks to effective communication. Allow individuals to voice themselves in a manner that is comfortable. Be receptive to all forms of communication both verbal and non-verbal. Support and encourage discussion of organizational issues.

Always respect differences among individuals in the organization. Although many cultures share some general communication characteristics, each individual will come with his or her own personal communication style. Acknowledging and respecting these differences will help to develop an organizational environment that nurtures and promotes effective communication practices.

Maintain patience when communicating across cultures. Finding the right words or channels to use to send a message from one party to another may take time. It is better to send the right message, the right way once, than to repair or recover costly communication errors. Be a good listener and promote two-way communication among individuals.

Encourage questions and feedback. This will help individuals define and clarify the messages being sent throughout the organization when cultural differences are a factor. Sometimes our messages are misinterpreted by the person receiving the message. Many internal and external factors can interfere with the communication process, including context of a message, and one’s own perspective in interpreting its meaning.

Lastly, it is important to identify the overall organizational culture. As with any entity, organizations will develop their own culture based on the combined influences and characteristics of all individuals involved, or who are part of the system. The organization develops an identity of its own, very different from any other organization or business, or one department from another, even those existing within a single tribe or community. They become as unique as people themselves.

Practicing these effective communication skills and promoting a healthy communication climate can go a long way in ensuring the success of a business or organization in Native country. The value of effective organizations is of greater importance in Indian communities where the economic and social challenges far exceed the general American population.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at