The concept of emotional intelligence comes up repeatedly in the context of executive business coaching. Emotional intelligence is a hallmark of the leader that stands apart from the rest. And emotional intelligence is put to the test on a larger scale now than ever before.
Today’s businesses don’t have to be large to conduct business internationally, so the emotional intelligence of any business leader may be put to the test in contexts other than a leader’s comfortable “home” context.
Tactful and diplomatic communication is another concept that arises in the executive business coaching context because successfully competing on an international level requires excellent communication (verbal and nonverbal) across cultures. It isn’t always easy. Here are some thoughts on mastering the art of tactful communication in today’s global, always-connected business world.
Building Blocks of Tact and Diplomacy
Many elements of doing good business with international clients are culture-specific, and they may even vary within a single country. In the United States alone, for example, there are business environments that are formal, and those that are laid back. To maximize your ability to carry out cross-cultural business gracefully, the following basic elements are necessary:
- Excellent listening skills – to verbal and non-verbal communications
- Strong emotional intelligence
- Assertiveness rather than aggressiveness
- Development of rapport
These fall under the umbrella concept of self-awareness, knowing who you are and what your place is in relation to others, and in light of the specific circumstances.
Sharpen Your Communication Skills
Effective communication is necessary for cross-cultural business, let alone for it to be a win-win proposition for all parties. Not only do certain slang terms or figures of speech get lost in translation, they can mean different things even among speakers of the same language. For example, you may deal with clients in Scandinavia and in India, all of whom speak English as their business language. Yet how it is spoken may vary tremendously in terms of formality, directness, and use of body language and emotion.
There is no substitute for learning as much as you can about the people in other cultures with whom you will be doing business. Do they tend to maintain the proverbial “stiff upper lip,” or are they more expressive? Will idioms get mangled in translation if you work with an interpreter? In general, clarity, directness, and politeness will facilitate better communication.
Understand Workplace Etiquette in a Cultural Context
Similarly, workplace etiquette varies considerably by culture. In some cultures, colleagues are expected to socialize with each other during off-work hours. In others, colleagues may not know each other beyond the roles they play at work. Some cultures (and sub-cultures) have more formal expectations for how people dress and who speaks at meetings, while others are more relaxed. Your wisest course of action is to learn what you can in advance, and then, if anything, err on the side of formality. It’s easier to “loosen up” rather than trying to adopt a formal attitude after making a gaffe with your informality.
Research the Rigidity of Organizational Hierarchies
Organizational hierarchies vary significantly from culture to culture. The Japanese, for example, have rigid organizational hierarchies that should not be breached. On the other hand, Norwegian companies tend to have flatter organizational hierarchies in which more people are expected to chime in. Research the organization of those with whom you will be dealing, but also learn what you can about their local and national customs for communication. Again, erring on the side of formality is better than the converse.
Excellent, tactful communication across international and cultural borders is a priceless business skill. Outstanding products and services can fall out of contention due to leaders being culturally tone deaf, and any product or service presented with knowledge and consideration of the cultural expectations of the audience will come across in a better light. Keeping it simple, clear, free of idioms and slang, and beginning on a slightly more formal note can help you develop the communication skills you need to succeed on a global level.
Many of my executive business coaching clients ask for help with their communication skills, and as we map out a strategy for that, I tell them what I tell you. Understanding and keen emotional intelligence are key elements of outstanding business leadership. Develop and practice intercultural communication, and there’s no limit to how far you can go.