When communicating with a non confrontive culture, how to ensure that real agreement exists? (revised)


Many cultures shun confrontation of any kind in the work place, the most extreme examples being Thailand and the Philippines, as well as many other places in Asia, the Middle East and South America.

In these cultures, verbal agreement is given to show respect, give face, preserve harmony and avoid embarrassment.

So how does a Westerner go  about verifying if the verbal agreement being expressed is more than just “being polite”?

1) A very close and trusting relationship will inevitably over time enable you to get more “meaty” input.

2) Use a third party. If you have spoken to X and are not sure what she thinks, ask Y if X agrees with you or not.

3) Ask the same thing in many ways. Assume for example, that you have spoken to X to inform her that product documentation will be available only in English, and X must “manage the customer for at least a  year” until local documentation is available.  X has given an apparent yes.  To make sure, ask X, “Will the client think our company is arrogant?” “What are the risks?” “How will this impact your credibility”? “Please tell me risks I am not seeing”? “Would you prefer I change my decision?”

4) Listen to what is not being said. For example “that could work” is different than “that will work”!

5) Is body language affirming what the words are saying? If X is looking down or away from from you whilst agreeing, you have your answer.

6) Do not use cell phones or emails to verify understanding of complex issues. Be there in person.

A helpful glossary: 

  • This could work may mean-this won’t work.
  • I need to think about it, but it’s a good idea- may mean-rubbish.
  • I will do, may mean- I will do albeit I don’t agree.
  • Not bad, may mean- piss poor.
  • Yes, may mean-No.
  • Please explain, may mean- No.
  • Ok, may mean, -it’s your dime.

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4 thoughts on “When communicating with a non confrontive culture, how to ensure that real agreement exists? (revised)

  1. I was born and raised from a non-confronting country. Isn’t 4, 5 and 6 the right way to communicate, in any form of communication, and in any mixture of groups, cultures etc. ? REALLY listen, watch body language, and f2f (again the chance to watch facial expressions, body language or avoid language misunderstanding, for starter) instead of Phone call, emails etc.

    #1 – is not something you can build overnight. Out of the question
    #2 – 3rd party — about the worse you can do as far as I am concerned. It is just like NSA in my opinion. Not a smart way to gain trust.
    #3 – asking question in different ways — unless one feels that the other person might misunderstood due to language difficiency, I would refrain from doing that. Because IF a same question is being asked so many times, you will irrate the other person enormously — because this person might think: am I that stupid that I have to be asked the same question so many times, in so many ways etc. :

    The art and tactic of Communication is the same anywhere — listen with intend to understand, polite, respect, trust, sincere — just a few terms that pop up right away in my list of good communications. Regardless of what cultures.


  2. When I lived in the US, one of the things that really surprised me is: the casual way of how an American ‘makes’ agreement. For example, eventually I learned it the hardway, IF an American says to me — I will give you a call. I should never believe it. In the beginning I would take it REALLY seriously the person would call etc. Just imagine how #3 would be like IF I really want to make sure this person is going to call, when, how etc.

    So, taking this example, would you not say the American (in general) has the same mentality — verbal agreement to save face — as anyone of us from non-confronting cultures? Perhaps not directly equavalent.

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