“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
- Winston Churchill -
Recently I gave a training seminar International Negotiations in Practice for a large Swedish governmental agency. In this training I asked the question: which words do you associate with diplomacy and diplomatic language. The answers were: boring, intransparent, unclear, vague and yes even lying.
Diplo-speak can be very confusing if you are not used to the codes. In communication terms it is very high-context. You must really know the context of the communication and the relationships between the people to understand the actual meaning of the words. So why don’t they just say what they think?
In the international arena we all come from different cultural backgrounds, with different communication styles and different value systems. One persons direct and clear can be another persons rude and blunt. Or when you think your being efficient you might be insulting by disregarding the hierarchy, important for your counterpart.
And since it is so easy to make an intercultural mistake we use diplo-speak to create a level playing field. A communicational zone in which, if you know the rules of the game, you can freely speak your mind without running the risk of injuring your personal relationship with your counterpart. A matter crucial in a field where so much depends on those crucial relationships.
So in order to be able to disagree without being disagreeable diplomats and negotiators try to use positive wording even for negative criticism: The proposal by our Dutch colleagues is very interesting in stead of : The Dutch proposal makes no sense. Or I understand the idea behind your proposal, in stead of That is not the way we should implement it.
This allows for a discussion on content without any personal insult to any of the parties. It helps us to navigate the minefield of international communication with all its sensitivities and it creates a level playing field for all those on the inside.
But ofcourse you have to know the intercultural rules of the game and practice them. Because if the UK colleagues say they have a minor problem getting your proposal through in London you better not report back to Stockholm that there is a good chance your proposal will make it!
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|What they say||What they mean|
|We believe the Dutch proposal is very interesting||What a strange Dutch proposal,we will not accept it!|
|We understand the general idea behind your proposal||We have a serious problem with how you want to implement this|
|We believe this proposal deserves further examination||We can’t accept it in this form|
|We have complete understanding for the French concerns,however we feel that we should ….||We disagree with the French|
|I hope we can be pragmatic and work towards a constructive solution||Please stop whining about technicalities|
|I am not quite convinced the German proposal reflects the best way out for all of us.||We will not accept the German proposal.|
|By inserting this you make it hard for me to convince my colleagues.||Stop making my position difficult.|
|I ask your understanding for the fact that this is very important for Sweden.||It’s important but I can’t tell you why. Ask me at the coffee machine.|
|I have been instructed by my government to propose the following solution.||I know this is not acceptable for you. Don’t shoot the messenger.|
|The internal coordination process is still ongoing||We did not have time to look over the document.|