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Three clues that it’s time to switch your communication style

Thunderbird Professor Denis Leclerc, Ph.D.

By Denis Leclerc, Ph.D.

U.S. tennis player Michael Chang thought about quitting during the 1989 French Open. Facing a relentless attack from three-time champion and top-ranked Ivan Lendl, Chang fell behind early and then suffered cramps that hampered his comeback bid on the red clay at Roland Garros. Rather than forfeit, Chang decided to switch styles. He started countering Lendl’s power with slow, looping returns that gave him time to hobble back into position between shots. During the deciding set, Chang even caught his Czech opponent off guard with an underhand serve. The unusual style rattled Lendl, and Chang went on to win the match and later the tournament.

Athletes have the advantage of a courtside scoreboard that alerts them when they need to switch their game plan. Business leaders must develop internal gauges that guide them through negotiations, team meetings and other communication situations. The most effective communicators master a range of delivery styles and then respond to clues that tell them when to switch things up. Here are three classic warnings that you might need to try something new when working with people from different cultures and regions.

Talking in circles

If you catch yourself repeating the same points without getting the expected responses, you need to break the loop. The problem might be something as basic as a language barrier, which often occurs when communicating in English with nonnative speakers. If so, try rephrasing your message or switching vocabulary. Cultural differences also create barriers. The key is to find overlapping frames of reference that everybody understands.

One of my students reported an exchange in Papua New Guinea, where he went to solidify a partnership with a remote tribe. The young manager drew a pizza pie on the ground with slices representing the tribe’s portion of potential profits. When the sketch produced blank stares instead of the expected nods of affirmation, the negotiator turned to his cultural guide and asked what the problem was. The guide explained that pizza was a foreign concept to the tribal leaders, who were more accustomed to sharing roasted pig. The negotiator asked his guide which parts of the pig were most prized, then he erased his pizza drawing and replaced it with a pig. He marked the most favorable portions for the tribe, and a deal was soon closed.

Vague answers

A related warning sign is vague answers when you want a concrete “yes” or “no.” Accompanying signals include negotiation counterparts who are quiet, disengaged or using closed body language. They might also switch to their own language to talk among themselves. When this occurs, one cause might be failure to build personal connections before getting down to business. In many parts of the world, people need to feel that you are not only interested in the deal, but also in who they are. Going to lunch or dinner in these situations is about everything except business. So if you’re trying to close a deal without success, you might need to switch your focus from data to people. Look for conversation starters in their offices, such as photos on the walls or knickknacks on the shelves. Ask questions. Be curious. Above all else, be genuine.

Taking without giving

The relationship building process sometimes hinges on the exchange of favors. This can be unnerving for rigid negotiators who rely on the precise language of contracts. Unfortunately, deals can be lost when negotiators refuse to show flexibility, especially in cultures that welcome ambiguity or view written policies as mere guidelines. So stop and think before you say: “This is just how we do things.” Skilled negotiators create options. They recognize favors when they are given and reciprocate. They learn to bend rules in ways that build trust without breaking laws or crossing ethical lines.

While athletic competition requires victory at the expense of an opponent, business allows for multiple winners. The best communicators reach across the table and create mutual value. They see issues from multiple perspectives. They don’t take things personally. They know that languages are structured differently, and people process information differently. They don’t change the what of their message, but they change the how. They understand there is more than one way to communicate — just like there is more than one way to win the French Open.

Denis Leclerc, Ph.D., is a clinical professor of cross-cultural communication and negotiation at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. A native of Normandy, France, Dr. Leclerc has taught in the Netherlands, Austria, Mexico and the Czech Republic. Thunderbird students in multiple programs have recognized him as their most valuable professor.