Dealing with cultural differences in progress focused conversations, how do you do that? My thoughts about taking into account cultural differences in progress focused conversations are the following. Many people work in international environments these days and most of us have come across cultural clashes at some point in our careers. Humour that fell flat on its face, questions that weren’t being understood, insults that were taken as compliments, instructions that were taken as suggestions and so on and so forth. So, do we take cultural differences into account when conducting progress focused conversations? The answers is yes and no. Let’s explore both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ part of the answer.

This person, these words

In a progress focused conversation we first join our conversation partner before doing anything else. We may ask a subsequent question or provide an explanation, but we always first respond to what our conversation partner has brought up. Progress focused joining can take on two basic forms:

  1. brief, short acknowledgements like ‘I see’ or ‘So that’s the situation’ or “I get it’ or ‘Right..’
  2. summaries in which you use and maintain the key words of your conversation partner (without changing them)

Keywords, their perspective

Progress focused joining creates a yes-set in your conversation. The two of you open up to each other, because there is a mutual respect and understanding. Since we use the key words of our conversation partner, we automatically take into account the entirety of his perspective, including his thoughts, feelings and if they play a role, also cultural influences. ‘If’ they play a role, since it’s not a given that in this particular moment in the conversation the cultural background of your conversation partner is playing a role at all.

Basic psychological needs are universal

Cultures are not uniform but psychological needs are universal. A student who was brought up in a collectivistic culture thrives more when he feels autonomous than when he is controlled in his motivation, just as any other human being. If he has internalised the collectivistic principles fully he feels autonomously motivated to adhere to these principles. If he doesn’t agree with the collectivistic principles he feels controlled in his motivation and this has adverse effects on his wellbeing and performance. It is therefore just as important to support a Chines student in his autonomoy as it is for a Swedish or a Dutch or an American student. In our conversations we can therefore use the same need fulfilling interventions regardless of the cultural background of the conversation partner.

Growth mindset cultures

Some cultures endorse growth mindset beliefs better than other cultures do. In Confucian cultures like Japan, Korea and China there is a strong emphasis on effort and the link between effort and performance. Students with these cultural backgrounds respond better to negative feedback (what they need to improve) than to positive feedback when we look at their subsequent effort. European-American students respond better to positive feedback and grow up in fixed mindset cultures . However, this doesn’t mean that we should adjust our feedback on the basis of the cultural background of our conversation partner. It turns out that situational cues have an impact on the mindset of students, regardless of their cultural background. So if we give growth mindset feedback, this can be beneficial to both students from east-Asia as to European-American students, especially when they perceive this information to have novelty value. Fixed mindset feedback doesn’t work well for students from either background.


Should we diagnose our conversation partners to adjust our own interventions accordingly? So far, I don’t see that’s the case. We don’t need to know the cultural background of our conversation partner to join their perspective, to support them in their basic psychological needs and to stimulate a growth mindset in them. In fact, diagnosing them may create a fixed mindset in ourselves, because now we start to talk to ‘a type of student’ instead of this individual at this moment in time.

Creating conditions

Dealing with cultural differences in progress focused conversations, how do you do that? Creating the conditions in which our conversation partner can develop a high quality of motivation, develop a growth mindset and come up with his own ideas as to how he can make progress is a more promising way forward, than assuming someone will ‘be’ a certain person because of his cultural background. Read more: Creating Progress