It’s the easy, cop-out answer. In a communication breakdown, some people ask the question, “What else was I supposed to do/say?”
- He really demoralized our team; how else was I supposed to respond to that email?
- They haven’t kept a promise for our entire relationship; what else was I supposed to do when she said “definitely”?
- He was acting like a complete jerk; what else was I supposed to do when he called me out in the meeting?
The question “what else was I supposed to do?” reveals two things about you. One is that you justify your actions based on the context and not the relationship. Two is that you have a very narrow Communication Comfort Zone.
As the international business world expands and becomes less western-dominated, the question “What else was I supposed to do?” will not be accepted as a valid justification for your actions. People with very wide Comfort Zones know there is always another option. They see multiple avenues when others have blinders on and only see their usual practices.
To help you expand your Communication Comfort Zone and keep you from becoming an obsolete communicator, here are three scenarios (all set in India, but can be easily transferred elsewhere) where you can test your ability to come up with an approach that avoids the narrow “What else was I supposed to do?” A few things to remember before you start:
- These scenarios are not about a right and wrong way of doing things. They are meant to help you think outside of your regular zone.
- Oftentimes, the option you didn’t consider (or didn’t know how to verbalize) is a more indirect one. However, there may be times when you need to be more direct than you are comfortable with.
- To do your best, first figure out if you are justifying your response based on the context or the relationship, and then decide how to respond.
You are a freelancer who offers social media marketing services. You meet the Founder/CEO of a mid-sized company at a social party, who very excitedly passed you on to her marketing head. You got a small contract, did your work, and submitted an invoice, but you did not immediately hear back from the marketing head. You called after a week, and he said they were sorting through some budget issues on their end; he asked you to be patient and wait a week. Two more weeks went on without any response. You started to get very irritated and typed out an email to the marketing head, putting the CEO on cc. In the email, you wrote about how unprofessional they are acting and how shocked you are at the complete disregard for business ethics. Should you send the email?
Putting the CEO on copy is only wise if you have a close relationship with her or if there is more for her to lose from a fallout. In any case, she will not respond kindly to the accusations about unprofessionalism and unethical behavior. As a founder/CEO, she will take these attacks personally against her character, and will likely ask “who is this person to accuse me of these things?” If there is not a good answer to that, she will kick you to the side.
What else could you have done? First, these kinds of discussions are best done on the phone. Emails get circulated way too easily and are often taken out of context. If you call up the marketing head, you can be a little direct and tell him you are very disappointed with this. Any written communication with him should not be slanderous at all.
If you still find it difficult, you can take it to the CEO level since you have a connection there. This should also be done in person or on the phone. Ask for a meeting to catch up, and discuss how your services are working. Mention in passing that you haven’t received payment yet and you’d like to keep working with her company, but these delays make it difficult. Ask if there is anything she can do to speed up the process. Then end with some other conversation topic.
You are working for large company in India. You have become friends with the manager of Employee Engagement in the HR department. You have lunch together and frequently discuss how people seem to find no meaning in the work they do and how sad it is to not enjoy coming to work everyday. He also shares with you about his passion for Indian spirituality, and you find it slightly interesting. One day, you walk in and find the entire office filled with posters of images and quotes from Hindu scriptures. Your friend comes by your desk, and says he is very excited about this new initiative. He thinks it will do a lot of good for the issues you have been discussing, and thanks you for your help. You think it is the definition of overkill and in-your-face spiritualism, and don’t think it fits in the office. How do you answer?
- “I think it is too much. You should not have done so many.”
- “This is not what I meant.”
- “Do you think this is really going to make a difference?”
- “I don’t think this will really help anything.”
Still direct responses he would take as direct:
- “Wow, this is overwhelming. There are so many.”
- “It’s nice, but do you think it is a bit much?”
- “Hmm…it is something.”
More indirect responses that he will still pick up on:
- “It must have taken you a long time to get these. How many posters are there? Do you think you ordered the right amount?”
- “What did [boss] think about this idea when you told him?”
- “I think that something like this is what we need, what other ideas did you come up with?”
- “What kind of feedback have you gotten from others?” [Then gently align yourself with any slightly negative feedback.]
You have been calling an electrician to come to your home for the last 3 weeks. Every time you set a date and time, he does not show up. When you call, he says, “Definitely I’ll come tomorrow,” or gives some excuse for not coming. You are getting quite irritated, but don’t know how to handle the situation.
If it doesn’t work, or you need help, ask a neighbor to speak on the phone for you. Be aware that this issue is more about time management than disrespecting you. The electrician only has so much time to do things and will often do the most urgent thing first. If he never sees you as urgent, then you will never get your work done. What you want to avoid is calmly saying on the phone, “Sir, you told me you would come, I expect you to come tomorrow please.” This creates no urgency and is just going to set you up for more frustration. When he does come and does the work, then you can be your normal courteous and pleasant self.
Photo Credit: Sutha Kamal on Flickr