How to Be a More Diplomatic Executive, Part 1

I’m often asked to work with leaders who need to improve their ability to collaborate. Sometimes they are great at execution or great technically, but their very direct approach to communication has damaged key relationships.  Other times, they may be pushing very aggressively for their own department without much awareness or concern for the success of their peers.  In some cases this is a matter of personal style; in others they may have grown up in a culture that values directness or forcefulness. The common theme is that they all need to increase their “Diplomacy Quotient” in a U.S.-based context.

For example, Richard* was a clean tech executive who joined a Fortune 500 company through acquisition .  A successful startup entrepreneur, Richard was known for getting things done.  He had strong technical knowledge and an uncanny ability to push through a project to completion.  In his first year after the acquisition however, he developed a reputation as being a poor collaborator with “rough edges.”  People said it wasn’t what Richard said, but how he said it that was the problem.  In meetings, he would disagree with others in a way they felt was throwing them under the bus.  The challenge especially showed up with Richard’s peers.  It was clear that his communication style was becoming a limiting factor in both his career advancement and his ability to impact the company.
*(Details changed to protect privacy)

With clients like Richard, I try to determine what sort of improvement would make the most difference.  In this 3-blog series I discuss the foundations of diplomatic communication that I’ve found most useful:

1. Assess Your Intentions.

A key underlying foundation for diplomatic communication is to cultivate goodwill and good intent towards the people you work with.  Over the long term, people will discern your true intentions. If your intention is to develop high-trust, meaningful relationships where all parties can be successful, people will sense that.

However if your intent is to drive your own agenda no matter what, even if you’re able to mask that with clever, diplomatic communication techniques, people will still sniff it out. Intent is a powerful first principle for good diplomacy, because it defines the mindset that you bring to relationships, which will invariably become evident.  People respond favorably to authentic good will.

Slow down and reflect on what your intentions really are.  It’s best to do this without judgment of “good” or “bad,” but just taking a sober look into yourself.  Whatever they are, are they what you want them to be?  Assuming that people will detect your true motivations, are you comfortable with what they will see?  If not, how would you like to change?  This kind of self-reflection goes a long way towards helping you become more of the leader you want to be.

For a deep-dive into how we can hold other people more intentionally as human beings (rather than as objects working for or against our own gain), take a look at Leadership and Self Deception, published by The Arbinger Institute.

2. Ask Open Questions.

Open questions typically start with words like, “What,” “How,” and “Tell me about…?”  These are questions that leave a lot of room for the other person to think and to describe their experiences, thoughts and feelings.  They allow for open reflection and maximum sharing.

For example, “How are things going on your team?” is a question that invites almost any kind of answer and allows the other person a great deal of space to think and share information broadly. Open questions are very valuable–and very different–from closed questions, which tend to elicit one-word or very short answers. Examples of closed questions are more along the lines of, “Have you thought about firing that person?” or, “Have you fixed that yet?”

While closed questions are useful in some situations, if you’re trying to develop trust and a strong relationship that’s based on mutual understanding, open questions are often more productive.  That’s because open questions, when combined with good listening, show a keen interest on your part in really understanding your colleague.  They show that you have set down your own needs, at least temporarily, for the purpose of really understanding their world.  Open questions move the conversation in a direction where that understanding can happen.  Remember that the more you understand others–their concerns, perspectives, motivations and needs–the better collaborator you can be.  This is essential for good diplomacy.

3. Be an Effective Listener.

Listening is another crucial pillar of diplomatic communication. People need to know that you’re truly interested, that you value what they’re saying and hear where they’re coming from. They’re much more likely to work well with you if they feel you have a genuine interest in them.

One of the best ways to prove that interest is through good listening. Listening behaviors include: making eye contact, not interrupting, not multi-tasking, and allowing others to fully complete their thoughts.  But it goes deeper than that.  The best listening springs from good intent.  People know if you are listening with a desire to understand and help them, or if you are simply pausing while you craft your next argument to get what you want.

One key to good listening that is often overlooked is to periodically summarize back key themes that you’ve heard.  This means paraphrasing briefly the most important thoughts or feelings they’ve shared.  So, after hearing a lengthy diatribe on the challenges that someone is having on their team, you might paraphrase back: “So it sounds like two of your direct reports have a conflict over resources, and that’s really frustrating you…is that right?”

Summarizing back what you’ve understood can provide evidence that you are listening, and that’s important.  Listening really is in the eye of the beholder. You may think you’re listening well and understand the other person, but what counts and really matters is, do they believe that you’re listening? In addition to providing proof that you’ve heard what’s been said, summarizing also has the virtue of slowing you down and helping make sure that you’re not putting your agenda first.

Currently my favorite piece on active listening is by James G. Clawson at Darden.  It’s worth paying for.

4. Cultivate Curiosity.

Curiosity can also be a powerful driver of diplomatic communication. The more curious you are, the more likely you are to ask good questions, to listen, and not to be overly focused on driving your own agenda. Being curious has a lightness about it.  Genuine curiosity does not tend to result in interrogation but more of a good natured inquiry, listening with an open mind and a desire to really understand.

I believe one reason curiosity helps with diplomacy is that, like several of these tips, it opens one’s mind to seeing and learning about things that you don’t already know.  Curiosity involves an openness and spirit of exploration.  If you can be curious about someone’s behavior, then there is room for you to learn more about them.  It’s hard to close your mind or put on blinders when you are curious.

If you are able to put into practice even one of these first four steps, you’ll be off to a great start in communicating more diplomatically.  Click here for Part 2 in the series.