How to "Deliver the Bad News" without Offending the Chinese

One of the most common questions I have been asked by western senior executives is: how do I communicate my concerns (and sometimes dissatisfactions) without offending the Chinese?  Communication is an art rather than science, and this is particularly true when it comes to the Chinese. As a high-context culture, the Chinese are generally indirect, non-confrontational and highly value "face". What you say may matter only so much or not at all.  What matters more is how you say it. Here are a few things you can try next time when you need to "deliver the bad news" to your Chinese counterpart.

Be Clear

If you are mindful of how your "American directness" might cost the loss of face to your Chinese counterpart that subsequently could lead to deteriorating business relationships, you are already ahead of the game.  Unfortunately, many people do not make enough effort to adapt their messaging to the Chinese, which can greatly reduce the effectiveness of their communication.  On the other hand, too much hesitation can lead to inaction and that is clearly not an answer either. 

You should say what you want to say but in a non-confrontational manner.  Be clear, be firm and be yourself but not be arrogant.  If there is a problem, they need to know why you are concerned, how concerned you are, what specifically you expect them to change and how their performance will be measured.

Lead in with Context

When examining an issue, the Chinese prefer understanding all the background information thoroughly first before making judgments.  The history and context that surround the issue and the inter-relatedness it has with other issues are major considerations that will be weighed in.  It is therefore most effective to present your point-of-view by first laying out the detailed background and context. 

For example, you need to move away from single sourcing and decided to add another supplier in addition to the current Chinese supplier.  When delivering this message, you would want to prevent negative responses that could result in suspicions and mistrust from the existing supplier.  You can soften the impact by taking the majority of your time explaining the market conditions, competitive threats, customer demands, etc. that compel you to make such a move.  This way, not only have you given the Chinese all the background information they need, but also you have reduced the blow from "loss of face".

Use Emotional Touch

The Chinese value efforts to make connections at individual's level.  They also have an appreciation for symbolism.  Combining the two elements in your presentation or speech can be very effective in persuading your audience.  

For example, when making a point that you suspect might be met with resistance from the Chinese, you can present it with a lead-in quote from a famous historical figure.   Such an approach brings you closer to the Chinese communication style, and makes your actual point more easily accepted.

Take Own Responsibility

Before communicating your criticism to the Chinese, it is a good idea to take a step back and examine your own business.  Is it possible that your company plays a role too in the poor quality, missed deadline or whatever the problem might have been?  Chances are high that it is. 

It is a good idea to acknowledge first that your company takes responsibility for some of the missteps before requesting the Chinese to do better on their part.  By doing so, you have simultaneously set a "role model" for your Chinese counterpart, saved their face, and more importantly, convinced them that you are a true partner worth investing in.


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