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Customized Communication July 18, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership.
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Everyone has their own natural style of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and while we may vary that style a bit as our emotional state goes up and down, we tend toward this comfort zone. It’s characterized by our use of expressive language and gestures, our balance of listening and talking, and our eagerness to share information vs. reflecting and supporting the statements of others. I’m a fairly outgoing, gregarious person, and I know my tendency is to join in the conversation rather than sit back and reflect. I’ve been told that I have no trouble carrying both ends of a dialogue, and I have to admit there are times when I feel like I have important things to say and not enough air time to say them all.

Early in my career at HP I had the opportunity to travel to Japan in 1989 for a series of business meetings with key suppliers. I had lived in Germany for three years as a child, but this was my first trip to Asia and I wanted to do some research to understand what I was getting into. I took a couple of classes in Japanese business etiquette, including the important protocols for introductions and business card exchange. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural differences related to communication. My natural speaking style with facial expressions, hand gestures, and rapid-fire repartee is certainly not the norm in Japan, and would probably make people there feel uncomfortable.

By the way, a great book on the topic of business etiquette in other countries is Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, by Terri Morrison, Wayne A. Conaway, and George A. Borden, Ph.D.

I suppose I could have exercised a little cultural chauvinism at that point and celebrated my individuality by staying in my communication comfort zone. However, being stubborn about my style would not help me achieve my goals for the trip, which required establishing a collaborative relationship. I wanted to communicate clearly and without creating discomfort, and it really wasn’t a sacrifice for me to temporarily modify my style, keep my hands on the table, slow down my speech, and accept long periods of silence.

After I returned from that trip I started to realize that the same principles of customized communication apply everywhere, not just in another country. Managers need to communicate effectively to articulate strategy, describe objectives, or provide performance feedback. Learning how to modify one’s style depending on the audience is an extremely valuable skill. I’ve heard some people describe this as manipulation, but I believe that anything I can do to make it easier for a person to hear and process my message benefits both sender and receiver. Isn’t that what every manager should strive for?

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