When does it pay to be indirect?

Consider this list of words: prevaricate, pussyfoot, quibble, shirk, sneak. They resonate with negative connotations. They also all describe what you might call idiomatically “beating about the bush”, another phrase with a negative connotation.  We are acculturated in the western world to believe that the more assertive and direct we are the more effective and business-like we are. We are often rewarded for directness, sometimes indirectly by way of compliance.

When does it pay to be indirect?

We are culturally loaded. Our communication and conflict styles are influenced by our world view, or factors such as:

  • The environment (public/private and intimacy or familiarity)
  • The topic and our commitment to it
  • Our culture (upbringing, religion, sex, age, language, job, community, family environment)
  • Our speaking code
  • Our listening code

Our world view also wires how we speak and listen to each other, and dictates or influences our assumptions.  In our western world view we value the individual, and we value directness.

Indirect communication has a higher value in cultures which also place a higher value on community than the individual. As our communities become more diverse it is becoming increasingly important to question our assumptions and reactions to certain communication styles.

Your EQ will help you respond more effectively.  Consider yourself, the other, and the situation.  Emotional intelligence and self-awareness opens our eyes to how our cultural loading influences how we hear and respond. We can learn to adjust, though at times that adjustment will feel quite counterintuitive. For example it is difficult to practice an indirect gaze when speaking or listening, when we are used to a direct one. Change starts with questioning our assumptions about another’s speaking and listening habits.

Let’s talk about face-saving. In a culture which values direct communication, face-saving may be perceived as negative behaviour. What is it? When we recognize it is happening, how do we respond appropriately and effectively? For a start, let’s recognize that it is not necessarily a negative behaviour.

Face-saving may reveal itself in many different forms. Here is some typical behaviour, what might be behind it, and some tactics which will help to improve communication:

What you notice: quiet, withdrawn behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve privacy and reputation, and secure approval from you or from others.
What to do:

  • Offer your ideas.  “I am wondering if you have ever considered…”
  • Define the topic in neutral, business like terms, and maintain focus in the conversation on the topic.
  • Use positive language.

What you notice: defensive, protective behaviour.
What might be behind it: A desire to protect others in their community and their and the community’s reputation.
What to do:

  • Be inclusive of others.
  • Provide space and time to allow check-ins with other stakeholders.
  • Be patient.

What you notice: openly agreeable behaviour, compliance.
What might be behind it: A desire to preserve peace, and maintain community.
What to do:

  • Build relationships. Take the time to get to know each other in relationship over meals, coffee.
  • Reinforce the value of open communication and transparency.
  • Gently confront discrepancies and apparent discontinuities. “I am confused. Can you help me understand…”

For further reading, check out this article by John Ng on mediation http://www.mediate.com/articles/the_four_faces_of_face.cfm#_ftn14, and articles/interviews by Stella Ting-Toomey http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/stingtoomey/index.htm.

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