Encouraging Debate and Initiative with Chinese Colleagues


Business in China can be both exciting and confounding; one of the most salient cases of the latter is dialogue between Chinese and foreign colleagues. There can be huge gulf, but not an insurmountable one. A manager at a business here in China once told me that when he held a meeting for new ideas about how to hit KPIs, and opened the floor to suggestions and ideas, not a single Chinese in the room volunteered to speak.

In instances like this, it is not because of lack of ideas and opinions but rather a vastly different cultural approach to communication withone’s superior than someone in the west may be used to. Depending on the scope of the business this can range from an inconvenience to a nightmare for efficiency. A practice environment, where dialogue is encouraged can be an excellent way to resolve this and create a bridge between West and East.

Key points to remember during practice:

  • Don’t dominate the discussion. You can guide the conversation but shouldn’t be speaking for the greatest length outright. Keep asking questions.
  • Don’t accept a simple ‘yes’, ‘no’ or any other one-word answers. Too often these are used to feign understanding. Work on getting them to elaborate.
  • Nobody should stay silent. Some participants will inevitably outpace others in terms of speaking output. Don’t let anyone or any few dominate the discussion to the point that others remain silent.
  • Encourage making mistakes. Being too self-conscious that the act of making a mistake makes one look foolish can lead to silences. Make clear from the outset that it is OK to make mistakes; make a few deliberately yourself and have the participants correct you.
  • Focus on opinions and ideas rather than strictly ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Foster an environment that encourages free expression.

If you keep to these points, the knowledge and expertise your Chinese staff have always had will assuredly come through. Don’t let an absence of conflict be your conflict.

By Daniel Rosen Business Trainer at Antal International China (Beijing)

antalCourtesy of Antal International Executive Consultancy

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