In the last few years, we’ve had the privilege to work across many cultures and time zones. For that, we are all immensely grateful. Because just like having a friend from another culture reveals its hidden facets to you, so does a business colleague open it up to you in a slightly different, yet just as revealing way. For me personally, though, I had to develop 2 golden rules which allow me to better navigate different communication styles that I encounter in my work.
Always choose the most positive explanation of someone’s actions
Every person and culture has a slightly different way of expressing themselves. Without delving into too many clichés about specific cultures (except maybe that yes, Americans are more direct than the French) I find that the golden rule is that whenever there is any ambiguity, always choose the most positive meaning possible (if you think about it, there is almost always some ambiguity in human communication).
If this sounds like it may leave you vulnerable and unprepared to all the less-than-positive intentions of your partners, it does not. You can still prepare and get ready for all the schemes and designs that you think may be lurking behind someone’s words. But by choosing the most positive explanation you leave the bridge open just in case you read those words wrong and they were not actually so ill-intentioned. Also, it leaves the bridge open for them to turn towards a more positive attitude later on.
Acknowledge their concern
Whenever someone expresses his wishes, requests or demands even, no matter how unreasonable they may seem at the time, I always find it useful to take a step back, a deep breath and to, yes, take it easy at first. As explained above, there is always an option that something ‘got lost in the translation’. Once I get over this hump I try to find out what is the real concern behind someone’s words. Usually, it’s not exactly in plain sight.
When you believe that you pinpointed the actual concern it always helps to acknowledge it. To literally spell it out. This works wonders almost all the time. Because what it does it suddenly puts you not opposite of your partner with the problem in the middle, but side-to-side with both of you facing it together. Somehow it also gives both of your minds a chance to focus on solving the problem and not on whether either of you is ‘giving in’ too much.
By the way, I learned this approach from an excellent book called Getting to YES by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I recommend it to basically everyone.