What is one communication skill that will instantly make you more valuable to over 3 billion people?
In our discussion of communication, we’ve seen that directness of communication can be related more to the delicacy of the relationship than the situation, we tend to judge others based on our own Communication Comfort Zone, and we can all find ways to expand our Comfort Zone.
What I’m going to propose next goes against nearly everything taught about cultural communication for years: learn to be more indirect.
Indirect communication gets a bad rap for being subversive, weak, hiding, lying, etc. If you’ve ever sat through an intercultural communication course, the following assumptions are painfully obvious:
- Direct communication (Western version) is superior to indirect (Asian).
- We need to fix people who speak indirectly.
- You should be ashamed of yourself if you don’t say exactly what you mean all the time.
- We would all be better off if everyone spoke more directly (Western version).
Why is that? Because these courses are sponsored, created, enjoyed, taught, and demanded by those who are more direct in their communication.
What if we rejected all those assumptions? What if instead of seeing indirect communication as a professional flaw, we hailed it as an advanced communication skill? What if instead of trying to fix other people, we actually learned something from them instead?
Sound interesting to you?
14 Reasons You Should Learn to Speak and Interpret Indirectly
1. The majority of the world starts with an indirect base. If you ever want to do business with the billion people in India, or the billion people in China, or the millions of people in South America, or southern Europe, or the Gulf, or Africa, it is worth your time to learn some new strategies and stop expecting everyone to adjust to you.
2. You will not understand a culture until you understand that culture’s indirect communication. If you cannot interpret when your Indian partner suggests a strategic move might be misguided, you not only have made a significant business error, you’ve also demonstrated a huge gap in your understanding of India (or whatever culture you are dealing with). Your ability to act wisely in that culture should be doubted.
3. It takes an artist to learn indirect communication. I’ll admit that there is some skill required to push yourself to become more blunt and bold when the situation demands it if you are not used to it. It is like teaching a man who has never been in a fight how to throw a great right hook. It takes a competitor to learn how to become more aggressive.
However, only an artist can learn to communicate more indirectly. It is a craft you cannot will yourself into by brute force. It takes skill and sophistication and a certain amount of suaveness.
4. Indirect communication is more poetic and nuanced. Blunt communication is showing a slice of cake to someone and saying, “THIS IS CAKE! EAT IT!” Indirect communication says, “Today is a great day for celebrating, don’t you think? I want to show you something you are going to love. Are you a fan of sweets? What is your favorite flavor? Take a look at this, and tell me what you think.”
5.Indirect communication keeps you from putting your foot in your mouth. One of the best advantages of indirect communication is that it is an “edit-as-you-go” model. You can constantly adjust the message depending on the feedback you get and don’t have to “reveal your cards” until the end. If your first suggestion elicits a bad response, you can adjust it and not worry about saying something dumb.
Let’s say you want to ask your manager for a raise. You might walk in to his office and say, “Look, I want to talk about my salary, I don’t think I am being paid equal to what I am contributing.” That is direct.
An indirect request sounds like this:
“Hi boss, do you have a minute?” Yes, what do you need? “I just wanted to talk about all of the work I’ve been doing and the new accounts I’ve signed up recently.” Actually, I needed to speak with you about these accounts. I got a call yesterday from one of the new partners who said he was very disappointed that you have not been in touch as much as he wanted. You know how important these things are. “Oh, I had no idea, I’ll go and check with him right away and work everything out.”
The indirect approach lets you know that this isn’t the right time to ask for a raise. It would be better after you work out this small issue. A direct approach might have put you in an awkward position that would have taken weeks or months to get out of.
6. Indirect communication will get you out of sticky situations. Let’s say you have worked on a project with the finance head, a man notoriously hard to get along with, but an extremely valuable friend to have (and an extremely difficult enemy). You have spent the last six weeks not only trying to do great work on the project, but also to build some rapport with him.
During a big meeting, the CEO looks over the report and notices some inconsistencies in the numbers and asks you directly about them since you are leading the project. Saying, “Rajesh (the finance head) gave me those numbers!” doesn’t seem like the best solution. If instead, you say, “We checked those numbers against last year’s books, but it is a good idea on your part to double-check them since this is such an important proposal,” you’ve complimented the CEO, saved the relationship with Rajesh, and given yourself a chance to fix any errors.
Or take the instance of having to comment on a pet project for your boss. He loves a certain idea that you are nearly certain is headed for disaster. The direct response is “I don’t think we should go through with this project.”
However, if your boss also speaks “indirect”, then saying, “Because this is such an important aspect of the business, we should make sure this makes us look good from every angle. I don’t want you to rely on just my opinion, since I will probably only look at it from a cost analysis. Should we ask Dilip and Maneesha as well?”
Indirect communication enables you to give a direct message, wrapped in an easy-to-swallow tablet. You can tell someone your honest thoughts and not get thrown out of the room at the same time. Pretty brilliant, huh?
7. Indirect communication has multiple layers of meaning. Let’s say you are in a meeting and your boss asks you how your presentation is coming along. You say “Yes, it looks good right now. I have some questions about some specific numbers, which I will want to run by you, but given the recent events, I think we are where we should be.” In that one statement, I’ve eased my boss’s need for information, asked for help, told him the presentation is stalled, complained about current events, justified why it will be late, and prepared him for a late delivery (assuming my boss also understands indirect communication). Compare that with a more direct response: “I can’t finish it until you do your work, and we are probably going to be late because of that disaster that happened in HR.”
8. Indirect communication forces you to look up from your laptop. The excuse of “You never ACTUALLY said that you needed me to help you” should not be a valid one in the global business world. Westerners in general rely too much on written communication, and have a tendency to believe the written word is the only world that exists. Once you learn to use and interpret indirect communication, you will begin to see a much larger world available to you.
9. The indirect meaning is usually the real meaning. Let’s say you sit down with some partners at a business meeting and start discussing the terms of a joint venture. One of them says, “We have enjoyed working with each other so far, but I think it would be good to get to know each other better along with our families.”
The surface-level meaning is that they want to be friendly and waste time and money on a frivolous family vacation. The indirect meaning is that they are a little nervous about trusting you after finding some articles in the news last year about the founder’s son and his drunk-driving arrests. You can guess which meaning is the real one.
10. Indirect communication lets you say “no” in the way they want to hear it. Your boss comes into your office while you are meeting with two colleagues. He says he thinks you should change the recent order from blue widgets to red widgets. To say “I can’t do that because the order has already gone out” has flavors of defiance as well as pointing out that the boss is not in tune with the business. To say, “I’ll look into it but it might be a little difficult to get them switched on such a short notice” saves both you and your boss the awkward situation.
11. You gain access into a secret world that others do not have access to. Were you one of those kids who tried to invent a new code language with a friend or sibling so that other people wouldn’t know what you were saying? Here’s your chance. If you speak and interpret indirect communication, you will feel like a mind reader when you stand up from a meeting and know exactly what the other person meant even though she never said it. You will be able to laugh at your western colleagues who have no idea what just happened and why you are so sure of the right response. Once you learn the code, you are in the club.
12. You will sense a disagreement or potential problem long before anyone else can. Direct communicators often talk about the “inscrutable” nature of indirect communication. You hear about western companies being “blindsided” by a move by their eastern counterparts who step out of a joint venture, or send back a representative empty-handed. Odds are, if they had an adept indirect communicator, they wouldn’t be blindsided and would have seen these things coming and prevented them. If you can interpret indirect communication, you just got a whole lot more valuable at key meetings between big players.
13. People will like dealing with you more. By people, I mean native indirect speakers. Do you think they enjoy sitting at meetings and feeling yelled at and accosted by foreigners? Do you think they appreciate it when their business partner can’t seem to take a hint regardless of how obvious it is? If you come in and understand what they are saying (and not saying), and can also speak in a sensitive tone, your value will skyrocket with them. Being able to speak and interpret indirect communication will earn you a lot of respect and rapport in most of the world.
14. You already use it, but won’t admit it. In a future article, I’ll show how indirectness is a part of every culture and must be understood to do effective business.
How do you learn to speak and interpret in an indirect way? You can do an intensive trial-by-fire, study-abroad, wreck-all-your-relationships-and-then-spend-six-months-repairing-them two-year course in India, or you can stay tuned for upcoming articles.
Photo Credit: Horasis on Flickr