When discussing cultural differences, I often ask groups if they believe an indirect communicator can actually have clear communication with another indirect communicator. My full response is below, but first allow me to point you to the following situation:
In our 2-day, Manager-As-Coach I workshop in India this month, we had an interesting experience that we’ve not quite seen to this extent in any other place we’ve worked. Namely, the overwhelmingly indirect communicators — the top management at that location — had a terrible time getting the conversation started well. Why? As they started with a coaching topic, their indirect style got in the way of their ability to be clear about their purpose. Clearly, how they were mediating conflict (which is the bases of indirect communication) was having a big impact on their ability to coach each other.
Imagine you wanted to talk to someone, for example, about how s/he might contribute more to finding efficiencies in the supply chain process. How would you begin? Would you paint a picture of the company goals with regard to supply chain? Would you tell them why you were speaking to them personally and specifically? Would you explain why this was important to you?
We recommend talking to each of these points, but our experience at this location was that the speaker would describe the context only — gaining agreement that addressing supply chain was important — and then go straight for asking for general ideas on how to solve. What was missing, then, was a clear and transparent message about why this conversation was important right now and why s/he was being spoken to specifically. The speaker would need to add something such as, “I wanted to speak to you about this because you oversee many of the processes in that area directly, and I have just seen some information I’d like to share with you. I hoped we could look at it together and discuss a strategy of how to best respond to it. Does that sound ok?”
The unintended consequence of not defining the purpose and relevance of the conversation (“contracting” with the other) is that the listener can be left frustrated, wondering where the conversations is going and what is actually expected. In the worst cases, the listener can feel manipulated because of a lack of transparency.
We drew this picture to make our point:
So to my original question: Can indirect communicator can actually have clear communication with another indirect communicator? Often, yes. But it depends. When indirect communicators have a similar point of reference (same function in the organization, are co-located, have a similar background) it is highly likely that there is communication with the same degree of effectiveness as those who are direct communicators (both styles have their problems of assumptions and bias). But change any one of those elements and the chances for clear communication goes down.
In the context of a global company — people from many backgrounds working together — a direct style does help. So while we advocate that all people who span boundaries practice geting comfortable with many communication styles, in the case we’ve described it would benefit these indirect communicators to find a way to be more explicit so as to improve their outcomes.