01 Oct 2015 19:23 IST

Be direct, don’t dance around an issue

Reading between the lines or from our body language is not easy for a listener, so say it as it is

As Indians, we have a culture of indirect communication that a colleague or boss from another country may not be able to understand. Picking up the clues we provide, reading between the lines or from our body language is not easy for a listener.

That is why trainers always emphasise the need to develop a more direct style of communication and as global business people, to say ‘no’ in a solution-oriented way. In this article, I talk about melding diplomacy and tact in that directness.

Dealing with the impossible

For example, when faced with something he/she knows is impossible, an Indian manager may respond like this:

Client: I need this to be done by the 5th of the month.

Indian manager: Hmm… I’ll try … there are two holidays in between, but I’ll see if I can do something about it… I’ll need to ask some people to come in on their off days.

Now, an Indian client would immediately sense that the deadline is unlikely to be met, but a Western one would not. It would be better to respond this way instead:

Indian manager: I would have loved to say “yes” to the 5th Jim (translated, this means ‘I can’t’), but I really need till the 7th (shows assertiveness) to get this job done really well for you (demonstrates customer care). May I have this additional time please (shows politeness)?

Don’t be vague and ambiguous

Facts and figures are very important in the Western scheme of things. When you say something about yourself, your achievements, or your goals, they expect you to back it up with figures, not leaving things vague and ambiguous.

For instance, during a job interview, you might be asked what you can contribute to the company. If you give some non-specific answer, like for instance, “I’ll increase turnover in the next year,” the interviewers will not be impressed. They would require some data that would back up your confidence.

“Have you done this for other companies?” you might be asked. A good answer would be, “Yes, we worked with a multinational in Europe and the goal was to reach €XZY. At the end of the project, we increased their profit margins by 15 per cent.”

Then, there is the important issue of disagreement.

Agree to disagree

There is a fine line on how much you can safely disagree, vocally. Disagreeing without being disagreeable is a point to be conscious of with everyone, especially when working with clients and senior managers. This is a hallmark of a good communicator.

Recently, I sat in on the following conversation at a training session:

Trainer: Navy blues and charcoal grey suits are safe bets in the US.

Participant: I don’t agree with that, I have seen so many other colours being worn there.

Preferred answer: I seem to remember other colours. Are there more?

Trainer: Yes, you may see more, it depends on the company you work with — Disney allows green, some other companies allow taupe/khaki, but these are the safe colours. You won’t see a lot of browns either; Americans don’t feel they wear that colour well.

Participant: I have seen them.

Preferred response: I have seen them but maybe they are unusual (This ensures he/she is not labelled argumentative by nature).

Different yardsticks

While you have every right to disagree with the information you’re being given, there are ways of conveying that disagreement. And remember, even in the West, yardsticks differ.

A senior consultant, who has lived in Germany for four months, travelling through most of continental Europe, and also worked and lived in the US for about two years, shared this observation with me recently.

“I am very direct in my communication style, something that I have developed even more after I started working for a European firm. But I have come to realise the importance of nuances in communication style as opposed to taking a black and white approach. For example, I cannot afford to use the same direct mode of communication that I do with my US team members with my European client, especially a senior one. There are always two or more ways of saying something (oral or written) depending on who the audience is. Adopting a more nuanced communication style is critical to succeeding in any work/after-work setting globally.”

A diplomatic approach pays

Professionalism in the US is a combination of time, effort and efficiency. Direct communication with a dose of diplomacy thrown in when required, good manners, keeping time (yours and the other person’s), are examples. With seniors and clients, exhibiting professionalism is important.

The rule of thumb would be to engage in direct communication with peers and team members, and to adopt a diplomatic approach with the boss or client. Especially with the boss, the customer or a senior person, directness is what America and the rest of the world outside India practice.

Recently, when I suggested something that he did not think would work, an expat colleague of mine told me: “I’ll be happy to try that, but it may not reach the goal we have. Would you still like me to do it?” If I had said “yes”, I know he would have turned on his heel, gone out and done it!