Process Model of Intercultural Competence


The author presents a framework of intercultural competence, based on a grounded-research approach. This framework, has found resonance in different cultural contexts, and can be used to guide curriculum and assessment as well as to raise questions for further research and discussion.

Martin Luther King Jr, once said “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Given the pressing global problems facing humankind in the 21st century, this statement has never been more relevant. So, what is necessary for people from different backgrounds to learn to live together? This was the key question behind the first research study to document consensus among leading intercultural scholars on a definition and essential aspects of intercultural competence (Deardorff 2006, 2009). From this national interdisciplinary study conducted in the United States, the consensus definition agreed upon by these leading intercultural scholars was broadly defined as “effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations.” This study serves as one way to view a more foundational framework to intercultural competence, one that is based on a grounded-research approach. Experts agreed upon essential items necessary to for diverse peoples to get along together; the researcher then categorized these specific agreed-upon elements into attitudes, knowledge, skills and internal/ external outcomes and placed these in an actual framework. As such, the specific elements of the framework will be briefly discussed here, as one example of a research-based definition and framework of intercultural competence. This framework, which has found resonance in different cultural contexts, can be used to guide curriculum and assessment as well as to raise questions for further research and discussion.

Attitudes: Based on the Deardorff study, three key attitudes emerged, those of respect, openness, and curiosity and discovery. Openness and curiosity imply a willingness to risk and to move beyond one’s comfort zone. Further, curiosity sets a foundation for more creative ways to turn differences into opportunities while openness allows the possibility of seeing from more than one perspective, which is invaluable when negotiating and mediating cultural difference (LeBaron and Pillay, 2006). In communicating respect to others, it is important to demonstrate that others are valued. This begins through showing interest in others and in simply listening attentively, while realizing that respect itself manifests differently in various cultural contexts. These three attitudes are foundational to the further development of knowledge and skills needed for intercultural competence development, with one way to move individuals toward these requisite attitudes being to challenge assumptions. As LeBaron and Villay (2006) note, “dialogue with genuine curiosity is a precondition for ….addressing cultural conflicts” (p. 94).

Knowledge: In the United States, there is some debate as to what constitutes “global knowledge.” In regard to knowledge necessary for intercultural competence, intercultural scholars concurred on the following: cultural self-awareness (meaning the ways in which one’s culture has influenced one’s identity and worldview), culture-specific knowledge[1] , deep cultural knowledge including understanding other world views, and sociolinguistic awareness. The one element agreed upon by all the intercultural scholars was the importance of understanding the world from others’ perspectives.

Skills: The skills that emerged from this study were ones that addressed the processing of knowledge: observation, listening, evaluating, analyzing, interpreting, and relating. This concurs with an observation by the former president of Harvard University of the importance of “thinking interculturally” (Bok, 2006). In particular, the pace of global knowledge is moving so quickly, it becomes more imperative for individuals to use these key skills to obtain and process information, instead of relying solely on knowledge alone.

Internal Outcomes: The attitudes, knowledge, and skills ideally lead to an internal outcome that consists of flexibility[2], adaptability, an ethnorelative perspective and empathy. Empathy can be defined as understanding and responding to others based on appropriate ways that meet their needs as opposed to basing such actions on assumptions of how others wish to be treated (Calloway-Thomas, 2010). This internal outcome involves aspects that occur within the individual as a result of the acquired attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary for intercultural competence to some degree. At this point, individuals are ideally able to begin to see from others’ perspectives and to respond to others according to the way in which the other person desires to be treated. Individuals may reach this outcome in varying degrees of success.

External Outcomes: The summation of the attitudes, knowledge and skills, as well as the internal outcomes, are demonstrated through the behavior and communication of the individual. How effective and appropriate is this person in intercultural interactions? This behavior and communication become the visible external outcomes of intercultural competence. This then becomes the agreed upon definition of the intercultural scholars in this study, that intercultural competence is the effective and appropriate behavior and communication in intercultural situations. However, it is important to understand that this definition is predicated on particular requisite elements of intercultural competence. It is also important to understand the implications of “effective” and “appropriate” behavior and communication. Effectiveness can be determined by the interlocutor but the appropriateness can only be determined by the other person – with appropriateness being directly related to cultural sensitivity and the adherence to cultural norms of that person.

These five overall elements of attitudes, knowledge, skills, internal and external outcomes can be visualized through the following model of intercultural competence, thereby providing a framework to further guide efforts in developing – and assessing- individuals’ intercultural competence. It is important to note that the development of intercultural competence is a lifelong process and that there is no point at which one becomes fully intercultural competent. Further, the process of development becomes crucial through self-reflection, mindfulness, and experiential learning, beyond the classroom. Knowledge alone, such as language, is not sufficient for intercultural competence and in the end, the requisite attitudes of openness, curiosity and respect remain foundational to all else. In the ever evolving literature on intercultural competence, the term cultural humility is entering the discussion, which focuses more on attitudes combined with cultural self-awareness. Less emphasis is placed on knowledge (and in fact even considers presumptious that one can develop competence based solely on cultural knowledge) and rather focuses on fostering cultural self-awareness, interpersonal sensitivity and an attitude of openness and learning (Tervalon, & Murray-Garcia, 1998; Juarez, Marvel, Brezinski, Glazner, Towbin, & Lawton, 2006). This particular model lends itself well to the focus on cultural humility when interacting with others. And as previously noted, intercultural competence occurs in varying degrees over a lifetime.

Limitations of this grounded-research based model are somewhat obvious, including that this is a US-centric model of intercultural competence. Further, it is helpful to consider aspects that are not present in the framework, given that this framework outlines only the essential aspects. For example, what is the role of language in intercultural competence development? Given that understanding other worldviews and others’ perspectives was the one aspect agreed upon by all the intercultural scholars in the study, one can ask: What are other cultural perspectives on this concept of intercultural competence, particularly non-Western perspectives? For instance, some non-Western literature points to the importance or relationship development and maintenance within intercultural competence. This leads to questions such as: How can future frameworks and definitions incorporate relational aspects of intercultural competence? What would be the implications of a more relational focus on intercultural competence? And finally, it is difficult for any model or framework to reflect complex realities of human life. To that end, it is helpful to view this framework as occurring within the larger contexts of historical, social, cultural and political realities.

So, what is necessary to get along together? This intercultural competence framework outlines essential aspects in response to that question. Such a framework can be used within education to guide curriculum (i.e., such as emphasizing the importance of including multiple cultural perspectives), to assess students’ intercultural competence (i.e., using a multi-method, multiperspective approach – see Deardorff 2009), and to inform the development of meaningful experiential learning experiences, such as education abroad and service learning. Given the increasing interdependence of our world, intercultural competence is no longer optional; rather, it is vital to our very survival. Educators play a key role in addressing the intentional intercultural competence development of future generations.

Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Calloway-Thomas, C. (2010). Empathy in the global world: An intercultural perspective. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). The identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization at institutions of higher education in the United States. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10 (3), 241–266.

Deardorff, D.K. (Ed). (2009). The SAGE handbook of intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

LeBaron, M. & Pillay, V. (2006). Conflict across cultures: A unique experience of bridging differences. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Juarez, J.A., Marvel, K., Brezinski, K.L., Glazner, C., Towbin, M.M., & Lawton, S. (2006). Bridging the gap: A curriculum to teach residents cultural humility. Family Medicine, 38, 97-102.

Tervalon, M. & Murray-García, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, May 9(2, 117-25.

About the author

Darla K. Deardorff is Executive Director of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), based at Duke University, where she teaches. Editor of the recently published Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence (Sage, 2009), she has published widely on international education and cross-cultural issues. She has given invited talks, trainings and workshops around the world on intercultural competence/assessment and serves as a consultant/trainer on these topics. The intercultural competence models developed from her research are being used in numerous countries and she is recipient of several awards related to her work. She holds master’s and doctorate degrees from North Carolina State University. Contact her at


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