“Kind words or cruise missiles”

Prague Leaders Magazine, July 2009

“The purpose of foreign policy is to influence the politics and actions of other nations in a way that serves your interests and values. The tools available include everything from kind words to cruise missiles.”

When I read Madeleine Albright’s comments on foreign policy, I couldn’t help but think how applicable her statement was to so many situations in our lives, be it personally or in business.

While speaking kindly to the people we like comes naturally to most of us, many find this exercise a little more challenging in our working lives. But in today’s business environment, a growing number of professionals are learning the benefit of speaking in a positive and friendly manner as a way to motivate and persuade others, and not just because few of us have any cruise missiles at our disposal.

Although the kind words Ms. Albright refers to are all part and parcel of the various methods and approaches we use on a daily basis to get what we want, they are often underused commodities. Praise, compliments and positive feedback are all useful tools that we can use to help us get things done in our daily activities. Moreover, they are often much more effective than criticism, threats and strong language.

There are many reasons why we should send out a positive message when trying to get people on our side, or convince them to help us accomplish something. Positive statements and praise make people feel good and increase their self-confidence. Moreover, positive reinforcement is a proven motivator of people and encourages them to be more open and receptive to our ideas and suggestions.

Compliments can also help establish good relationships with others and encourage the development of a strong rapport. Rapport is defined as the ability to relate to others in a way that creates a climate of trust and understanding. And the quality of the rapport we share with others does influence the way we communicate with them.

Although most of us are aware of the many advantages provided by praise and positive feedback, a problematic question that is often raised by my coaching clients is: “How can we achieve what we want and maintain our natural behavioral style?”

A couple of years ago, I suggested that one of my clients praise her boss in order to create a better relationship with him. She was baffled by my recommendation. “Praise my boss! But how? How can I praise him in a natural and honest way?” she asked. I told her that the best way was to be true to herself and smile when the boss said something she found interesting or funny and to nod when she agreed with him. I also told her to answer her boss’s questions in a positive manner even when she didn’t agree with him. Regardless of the position of the person we compliment or praise, the best way we can do it in an honest and natural way is to simply focus on what he or she does well and ignore the rest.

Indeed, last week one of my students pointed out that though it is easy to speak in a positive manner with people we naturally take a liking to, it is much more difficult to develop a positive rapport with someone we don’t necessarily get along or agree with. This is a challenge for all of us. Nevertheless, by focusing on having an objective and productive interaction with others, we can all overcome our spontaneous inclination to dislike people who don’t meet our expectations.

Interestingly, as a business coach specializing in communication and cross-cultural issues, I have learned that while achieving this kind of objectivity may be effortless for some, many Czechs I have spoken to find this to be very difficult to achieve. I have often witnessed that though Czechs are in general inclined to behave in a polite and friendly manner, they also place a very high value on sincerity. It is this need for sincerity that often creates a kind of inner conflict when they meet someone they dislike. While some Czechs manage to keep up a polite front and relate to others courteously even when they don’t like them, others are not too concerned about expressing their true feelings for someone they dislike, either by keeping their distance or by adopting a passive-aggressive position.

As a foreigner living and working in Prague, I always felt that it was my responsibility to adapt to the Czech culture and the Czech behavioral style. And as a coach I am often observing the way people interact with one another and looking for opportunities to promote better relations. But these past few years, with the ever-growing cosmopolitanism of the Czech capital, I have noticed an urgent need for greater cultural understanding among Czechs working with and for international companies.

On one hand, Czechs have worked hard to achieve acceptance and respect on the international stage. And on the other hand, Czechs often feel compelled to assert their differences and have difficulties adapting to the official business standards. For example, for many Czechs, adapting a certain dress code or learning to speak in public is perceived as learning to act and pretend and not necessarily learning to present themselves in a professional manner

While I value and appreciate the natural tendency of Czechs to simply be themselves and behave in a way they feel comfortable with, so as to not have to worry about how others will perceive them, I also think that there are times and situations when it is in our best interest to take a diplomatic approach. After all, how tolerable would most of us be if we were always ourselves? This is particularly true in a global working environment made up of people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Having spent almost 10 years living and working in New York City, I am accustomed to fast-paced and energetic way of life. However, after 14 years in the Czech Republic, I have learned that my outgoing and spontaneous personality isn’t always the most efficient way to communicate with Czechs. Though many Czechs appreciate my natural and direct style, I often have to disguise it with the polite introduction everyone customarily adopts: “I am sorry to bother you, would you be so kind…”. Indeed, I often have to soften my behavior to the point where it seems that I must almost plead with Czechs to get something done. If I don’t conform to this convention, I have little chance of achieving much.

Nevertheless, though I must often change my behavior to reach my goals, this does not mean I have sacrificed my authenticity. In the given context, I am speaking and behaving appropriately and, more often then not, getting the results I want.

While most of us prefer to keep our behavior in line with our own beliefs and values, working in a multicultural environment requires us to leave the familiar behind while accommodating the values of those around us. That forces us to put things into perspective and really ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish. What we find is that a compromise in behavior and attitude can sometimes be far more productive than letting your natural inclinations determine everything.