Cultural Coaching: Knowing When to Shut-Up

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, January 2014

Anyone who’s spent time in another culture will be aware that the norms and assumptions around conducting meetings are a minefield. But while you can easily accept that in theory, you may have to blow yourself up to really get the point.

My big lesson in how not to conduct a multicultural meeting came, ironically enough, when I was supposed to be coaching a top executive at French car manufacturer Peugeot Citroën and his wife in preparation for the cultural adjustments they’d need to make in their upcoming move to Wuhan, China.

Bo Chen, the Chinese country expert assisting me, arrived early. A 36-year-old Paris-based journalist from Wuhan, Chen was articulate, extroverted, and very knowledgeable.  His job was to prepare two to three concrete business examples to illustrate each cultural issue I would be covering.

I began the session by outlining on a flipchart the cultural issues that the Bernards needed to grasp to make their time in China a success, carefully keeping an eye on Chen so I could help facilitate his input.

But Chen didn’t seem to have any input. After finishing my presentation of the first main cultural challenge, I paused briefly and looked to him for his examples, but he didn’t speak up. He didn’t open his mouth, move his body forward, or raise his hand. Apparently, he had no example to provide. Not wanting to embarrass Chen, I simply continued to my next point.

To my growing dismay, Chen remained silent and nearly motionless as I went through the rest of my presentation.  He nodded politely while I was speaking, but that was all; he used no other body language to indicate any reactions, positive or negative. I gave every example I could think of.   I spoke, shared, and consulted with the Bernards, but still no input from Chen.

I continued for three full hours. My initial disappointment with Chen was turning into full-fledged panic; I needed his input for the program to succeed. Finally, I decided to take a chance. “Bo,” I asked, “did you have any examples you would like to share?”

Chen sat up straight in his chair, smiled confidently at the clients, and opened up his notebook, which was filled with pages and pages of typed notes.  “Thank you, Erin,” he replied.  “I do.”   Chen then began to explain one clear, pertinent, fascinating example after another.

What happened?

Since the Bernards, Chen, and I were participating in a cross-cultural training program, I decided to simply ask Chen for an explanation of his actions. “Bo,” I exclaimed, “you had all of these great examples! Why didn’t you jump in and share them with us earlier?”

“Were you expecting me to jump in?” he asked, a look of genuine surprise on his face.  He went on to describe the situation as he saw it.  “In this room,” he said, turning to M. and Mme. Bernard, “Erin is the chairman of the meeting.”  He continued:

“As she is the senior person in the room, I wait for her to call on me. And, while I am waiting, I should show I am a good listener by keeping both my voice and my body quiet. In China, we often feel Westerners speak up so much in meetings that they do this to show off, or they are poor listeners. Also, I have noticed that Chinese people leave a few more seconds of silence before jumping in than in the West. You Westerners practically speak on top of each other in a meeting. I kept waiting for Erin to be quiet long enough for me to jump in, but my turn never came.  We Chinese often feel Americans are not good listeners because they are always jumping in on top of one another to make their points.  I would have liked to make one of my points if an appropriate length of pause had arisen.  But Erin was always talking, so I just kept waiting patiently.   My mother left it deeply engrained in me: You have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth.  You should use them accordingly.”

As Chen spoke, the cultural underpinnings of our misunderstanding became vividly clear to the Bernards — and to me.

The experience was, frankly, a bit humiliating as this was a cross-cultural training which I was supposed to be leading, yet I found myself, uncomfortably, in the role of a student. It certainly changed the way I lead meetings.  I am now more prepared to recognize and flexibly address the differing cultural expectations around status and communication. When I moderate meetings with Chinese and Western participants, I always make sure to invite those who are quiet to speak.  I let the Chinese participants know in advance what topics I will be asking for input on and advise them I’ll be calling on them individually so everyone is comfortable and prepared when I do.   And if some don’t respond immediately, I allow a few more seconds of silence before speaking myself.  When I ask questions I go around the table to hear input from each team member in order.

As for the Westerners, I prep them to speak a little less in order to give their Chinese colleagues more space. For me personally, it has become glaringly clear that my American tendency to fill up quiet space is not a good strategy. When Chinese are in the room, sometimes the best way to get them to contribute is to just shut up.