The program Influence & Accountability that runs at one of my main clients has been planned in the calendar of hundreds of participants across the world this year. Consequently a lot of travel is in my agenda, with more work-days outside of The Netherlands this year than in the country. It’s fascinating.
The last two weeks I spent in China, for 3 assignments. China is among the most interesting countries to travel to, as the rate of change in this country is so high that the cities seem to have changed each time I’m there. I was in Tainjin, a major harbor city with about 15,5 million inhabitants in north-east China (about two hours by car from Beijing, and by now the fourth city in terms of population). The roads connecting the main Chinese cities are not what many people imagine them like: we often still associate China with poverty and under-development. Nothing is less true: the road connecting Beijing and Tianjin is a modern 5-lane highway, only flanked by a high-speed train which connects the two cities these days with just a 30-minute commute
Along the road new cities are built at a fast pace: the region is rapidly expanding and industrializing. Named the Jing-Jin-Ji project, the plan of the Chinese government is to unite Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei into one mega-city with 130 million inhabitants and spanning a total area of 212.000 square kilometers (http://www.documentarytube.com/articles/project-jing-jin-ji-how-china-wants-to-merge-beijing-tianjin-and-hebei-into-a-supercity-with-130-million-citizens). Arriving in Tianjin is an experience as well: for half an hour you drive through a city with only skyscrapers: endless living areas, industrial parks and newly built quarters (call them cities).
My assignment started with facilitating a 3-day workshop, with two teams (from the US and from Tianjin) that did not cooperate so well. Many misunderstandings had developed over the years, and a lot of finger pointing took place. And although the cultures of the US and China played a role in the misunderstandings, the majority of the workshop was focused on the quality of communication between the members of the teams.
When teams do not collaborate well, it can be very powerful to analyze the quality of their communication. When gradually bringing in techniques to improve the communication, the misunderstandings are reduced and more appreciation for each other’s perspectives comes up.
There are 4 techniques I frequently use to address the quality of the communication:
- What did you just say?
Often when people have difficult conversations, they pose statements without really connecting to the other person. Person A states what he thinks, and as soon as there is a window of opportunity, person B continues to make her point clear. The two parties take turns without ever merging their conversations into one dialogue. Stopping these interactions, taking a break and asking people “What did you just say?” often does miracles. You ask people to pause, take the speed out of the conversation, and try to really analyze and understand what the other person just said.
- What did you just try to say?
What we say and what we mean to say are often two different things. I can say “That really should be looked at carefully, as it is not obvious this will work.” But what I really try to say is that I do not think this is a good idea, and that I’m really skeptical about the chances of success. This is more than indirect communication: often we say things differently than we want to say them. Clarifying this can do miracles. “I got your point. But in your voice I also hear hesitation, is that correct?”
We often assume the other person will understand us hence we take shortcuts in a dialogue. When somebody says: “That is what I told the group the other day”, three deletions can be explored. “What exactly did you tell the group the other day?” “Whom in the group did you tell this to?” and “On what occasion did you speak to them?” are questions to fill in the blanks. And although it is irritating when these questions are asked frequently, it tremendously helps the quality of the conversation.
I often ask people to first summarize what the previous speaker said, before allowing them to make their own contribution to the conversation. And although this takes all speed out of a conversation, the quality of the dialogue increases considerably. It is amazing when people have to use this technique to prepare an important and complex decision, of when a disagreement has to be discussed. Frequently, people will tell me that they never had such high-quality conversations at work as in this workshop.
These techniques have nothing to do with culture. But they all have to do with the need for clarity in the complex discussions we often need to have at work.
It was beautiful to see how the dialogues in the group became of better quality in the course of the 3 days we spent together. And while a 3-day workshop will not make all issues disappear, two teams left with more confidence in their shared future. Understanding for each other’s mutual positions had increased, there was more appreciation for the pressure and challenges each team faced, and the difficult issues that all struggled with had been discussed and clarified. We ended with concrete and clear actions, to be followed up in the weeks to come.
An external facilitator helps in these kind of processes, however, my role in the end is very limited. The work is done by 16 professionals, in this case from the US and China.
The China team deeply impressed me. Because in China not only the infrastructure and the industries are developing rapidly: the people are too. I had to re-think my cultural assumptions about how the Chinese work, as many traditional Chinese values were not or minimally visible in this global team. Communication was at times very direct, and the Chinese did not hold back when disagreeing with statements made by others. Their eagerness to learn was visible continuously, as was their drive to pragmatically solve the situation for the better.
A great adventure for me with thankful work. Work that started with a call on my expertise of cross-cultural cooperation and communication. But in the end, this was of minor importance: the key was in making people connect, and (re-)start a meaningful dialogue.