Conflict management / giving feedback in a cross-culturally adept way

Feedback isn’t easy. Even when I want to give feedback to someone from my own culture about a specific behavior, it can easily lead to conflict, especially when it comes to negative aspects and wishes for improvement. For instance, the feedback recipient can easily feel attacked, misunderstand what was said or draw the wrong conclusions.

When the culture factor is added to the equation, giving feedback can become significantly more complicated. For that reason, I’d like to give you some practical tips and strategies on how you can form your feedback in a constructive and internationally productive way.

In the process, I concentrate mostly on negative feedback, because communicating praise and compliments normally doesn’t entail much potential for conflict.

Honest questions in advance

What’s the problem? Why is this even a problem for me? Out of habit or for legitimate reasons?

The question of why a problem is a problem is very important. For instance, do I insist on punctuality because it’s personally important to me? Or do I insist on punctuality because otherwise an important product can’t make it to the customer on time, thus losing the company money?

A lot of people tend to force their values on others for no comprehensible reason. Justifications are often along these lines: “That’s just how we do things here”, “That’s how I want it” or “This is important to me.”

If you can’t objectively justify your desired change in the feedback recipient, you should consider whether it’s really worth the conflict. In this case, it may be opportune to be tolerant and not place your own values and beliefs above those of others. 🙂

Prepare well!

Let’s assume that you’ve decided to give feedback. Before your discussion, please ask yourself the following:

  • What are my discussion partner’s cultural mannerisms? Is he or she more direct or indirect? Issue-oriented or relationship-oriented? Is hierarchy an important issue, or does my counterpart prefer discussions on equal footing?
  • In my experience, these three cultural dimensions play the most significant role in feedback discussions.

The talk begins…

1. Choose a neutral location [one of the participants’ offices is not a neutral location], ideally one with a positive atmosphere – something like a fancy Italian restaurant.

2. Always talk about difficult issues face to face, never via e-mail, and preferably not via telephone.

3. Let your counterpart talk first. Ask for his or her opinion about the situation. Here, it is very important that you correctly accept any feedback you have received.

4. Reformulate what your counterpart said. This shows understanding and ensures that you don’t misunderstand anything. This is especially important when both people have different native languages.

5. Relate how you experienced the situation, what you see as a problem and especially why it’s a problem for you.

  • In the process, don’t place blame on your counterpart.
  • Emphasize the positive aspects of our collaboration. More positive aspects and a maximum of two negative aspects should be mentioned [concentrate on your most important desires for improvement].
  • Say that you’re interested in good collaboration.
  • If your counterpart is an indirect and relationship-oriented person, negative aspects should be formulated indirectly and cordially.
  • In order to stay constructive, it also makes sense to distinguish between facts [What did I objectively observe, see or read?] and feelings [What does a certain behavior mean to me? How do I feel about it?]

6. Ask for a proposed solution from your counterpart.

7. Agree upon solutions together; don’t dictate them unilaterally.

8. How can changes be measured specifically? Arrange a follow-up meeting to talk about the achievement of your objectives.

If your counterpart is rather hierarchy-oriented, you should show a little more strength in your discussion. Lead more, suggest more solutions and emphasize very clearly how important it is to you for your agreements to be adhered to. The balancing act here is to take on the leadership role without dictating unilaterally.

Conflicts are important!

In conclusion, I’d like to point out how immensely important it is to talk about negative things. When people cooperate together, there are always frictions and differences, because people are, quite simply, individuals – they think, feel and act differently. This is entirely normal.

Problems only emerge when people sit on their concerns, problems and desires rather than address them, because conflicts don’t simply disappear. Much more likely is that a tiny problem quickly becomes a mountain of problems that can lead to long-term dysfunction in the relationship.

So face your conflicts head-on. Conflicts are positive. Every difference of opinion offers huge potential for all involved parties to evolve. Now you too know how to handle them better.


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About Markus Eidam

Nach meinem insgesamt vierjährigen Aufenthalt in verschiedenen Ländern dieser Welt bin ich seit dem Jahr 2004 Geschäftsführer bei den Auslands-Experten von Eidam & Partner. In jüngeren Jahren habe ich Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Erwachsenenbildung und Psychologie studiert und mich zum Trainer, Coach und Personalfachwirt der IHK ausbilden lassen. Unser Unternehmen bietet Ihnen Interkulturelles Training, Interkulturelles Coaching, Consulting und eLearning zu 80 Zielländern.
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