How to Be a More Diplomatic Executive, Part 2

Today we continue the three-part series with four more ways to develop diplomacy. Click here for Part 1.

5.  Suspend Judgment and Allow a More Complex Picture to Form.

A close cousin to curiosity, suspending judgment means avoiding putting people or ideas into a box. One thing I’ve noticed about most people who have a reputation for being a bull in a china shop–or who have a reputation for not being diplomatic–is they often form binary judgments about ideas and people.  They see people as either competent or incompetent, trustworthy or not…friend or foe.

This can be valuable when quick decisions are needed, but it can be destructive if it closes down your ability to take in additional information. Diplomacy requires us to avoid simplistic labels.  For example, if you quickly assess that someone is incompetent, it’s much less likely that you will continue to try to work with them or help them improve, or that you will see or leverage the strengths that they do have.  If you quickly assess that an idea is bad, you may miss the part of the idea that’s good.

People who are highly diplomatic are better able to take in and hold a more nuanced, complex picture of people and ideas.  They may recognize for example that a colleague is very weak in some areas, but at the same time, strong in others.  They can hear an idea and see it as unworkable, while also acknowledging the positive intent behind the idea, or that part of it might work.

Suspending judgment and being willing to see the complexity of what’s in front of you is incredibly useful.  It prevents you from becoming dismissive, from closing your mind; and it enables you to take the next step, which is to acknowledge the positive before expressing concerns or disagreement.

6.  Acknowledge the Good.

If you’re able to maintain curiosity and suspend judgment, if you’re able to see shades of gray in someone’s ideas or their strengths and weaknesses, then you’ll usually be able to find something positive or collegial to say before you express disagreement.

This is useful because if you disagree with someone’s idea but your statement begins with, “I can see the value of what you’ve said, I appreciate that X, Y and Z are probably true; having said that, I have a different take on this situation…” then, they’re much more likely to listen to you and less likely to become defensive.

Pointing out the positives in another person’s position is just good communication hygiene. It doesn’t mean that you’re selling out or that you are lying. What it means is you’re willing to look at a more granular level at both strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledge the strengths before you move on in the discussion.  This gives the other person a sense that you are on their side, that you appreciate something about them, that you value what they have said.

7.  Be Transparent to the Extent Possible.

Good diplomacy is based on trust, and one way to build trust in your relationships is to be more open.  Of course, you won’t be able to be open about everything all the time.  But often there is some leeway in how transparent you can be.  One way to lower trust is to develop a reputation for being someone who holds their cards very close to their chest, or has hidden agendas.  You can raise trust by being more transparent.

It’s much easier to be transparent if you cultivate positive intent, and see the good in others and their ideas–because then you’ll have good things to say.  It’s also easier to be transparent if you are able to choose words that are more collegial.

8. Develop A More Diplomatic Vocabulary.

Certain words and phrases are extremely helpful in becoming more diplomatic. For example, I often advise people to substitute “and” instead of “but” when disagreeing with others. If you tell someone the reasons you appreciate their idea, and then say “…But we can’t do it because…”  the word “but” tends tends to make your disagreement sound more negative than it needs to.

So, when you disagree, try to avoid “but,” and use language that acknowledges your colleague:

“You raise several good issues…and I have a different viewpoint.”

“I hear your point.  Let me share a different way of thinking about this…”

“I see why you might be thinking that way….And, from my perspective and from the perspective of my team, that’s not a workable solution…”

“What I appreciate in what you are saying is that you are clearly trying to improve efficiency, which I agree is needed.  I have a different view on how we ought to do that…”

Phrases like these go a long way towards helping others realize that you acknowledge what’s good in their ideas, and that if you disagree, you still hold them in respect.  A corollary to this is, try to disagree with the idea, not the person.  If you can depersonalize ideas as you discuss them, you are less likely to offend others.

Click here for Part 3.