January 12th, 2018

The feedback from Helen’s colleagues went like this: “She is direct. She gets to the point. Tells it like it is. Straightforward and transparent. She is honest and doesn’t sugarcoat. She is blunt and upfront. Sometimes she is too honest. She could give more context; could be softer.”

Communicating diplomatically is becoming increasingly important in most organizations. The need to collaborate with people from other disciplines and other cultures has grown. Diplomatic communicators are able to balance expressing their ideas with avoiding offending others. This can be a delicate balance. Too much directness can offend. And too much politeness can fail to communicate important ideas. For this reason, this client and several others are working with leadership coaches to develop the skill of diplomatic communication.

Once we decided to focus on learning to communicate more diplomatically, Helen and I identified three sub-skills that would enable her to be more diplomatic. These were: empathy, regulating emotions, and using perspectives rather than absolutes. As we dug deeper into each, this is what we uncovered.

As we reviewed these three foundations for diplomatic communication, Helen exclaimed, “I have three new toys to play with when I’m in a difficult meeting. And I will have fun playing with this.”

Along with these three disciplines, we recognized that watching role models would also help her to develop diplomatic skills. She selected her manager, who she described as a master of diplomacy. We also decided to look for other role models in the media. We recognized that politicians are often masters of diplomatic speech, motivated partly from a desire not to offend anyone and lose votes.

On NBC’s “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie put Senator Bob Corker on the spot, asking,

“Left to his own devices, do you think the President is a threat to national security?”

Corker replied, “I think there are people around him who work in an effort to contain him.” Similarly, an interview with CNN’s Manu Raju went like this.

Raju: Is the President of the United States a liar?

Corker: The President has great difficulty with the truth on many issues.

Raju: Do you regret supporting him in the election?

Corker: Well, let’s just put it this way: I wouldn’t do that again.

With all of these inputs and some opportunities to practice, the client is making great progress.

Note 1: Culture of origin can determine how directly or diplomatically a person naturally communicates. People from Northern European and Israeli cultures tend to be very direct. And, when they come to the US, need to learn diplomacy. (Helen was born and raised in Germany.)

Note 2: Coming from a direct, Jewish-American household, I needed to learn diplomacy in my first corporate job. This probably gave me the sensitivity and understanding of diplomacy that enables me to coach it in others.

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