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Speaking to one another: a personal matter

by Martin Brandstötter 

A good rapport and clarity in matters form the basis for employee-talks and interviews.

It is one of the classic images we have in our heads regarding China and Europe: the Chinese are more reserved and prefer to hide their face, while Germans are direct and say things the way they are without hesitation.

Perhaps you know this picture, and yet you ask yourself, "What does that mean for an actual conversation? How am I supposed to actually behave during an interview or when speaking with employees?

Looking through European lenses, I see one thing above all: Clarity is important! By that I mean a "unified understanding" between both speakers. Both must be clear as to what precisely the discussion topic is, because otherwise we will think, "Oh, we were talking past each other for half an hour." And if you have already had this feeling before, it was not very comfortable, was it?

Clarity must also exist at the end of the conversation: Clarity of the solution, clarity of what will happen next. Clarity of who is responsible for what and when, and who will inform whom. Because if there is no mutual understanding here, we do not feel good about it: "Now we have been talking for an hour, but I don't even know what we just agreed on," or, "Now he's doing something else entirely than what we decided."

Because I, unfortunately, also come across management who prefer to stay rather vague (I assume that some people do not like to commit because they would otherwise have to be prepared to make decisions), I take it one step further: whether you are an employee or an applicant, you can and should strive for such clarity (believe me, it will save you a lot of trouble. The confusion usually comes up somewhat later).

Now I am putting on my Chinese lenses. In all of the seminars I have performed with Chinese managers, the participants used this term: 理解一致(lǐjiě yīzhì), or united understanding.

But even when the goal is the same, the means may vary. Executives and employees in a European corporate culture stay "at eye level". Even if the position and scopes of responsibilities are different, executives expect a confident appearance from their employees and the proactive contribution of ideas.

In a Chinese corporate culture, this behavior would be dumbfounding. The management would view you as too forceful, too demanding and disrespectful. I thus recommend more reservation in your appearance.

A Chinese sales manager explained his experience to me like so: After he had gone back to working in China after several years in Germany, there were even customer complaints because he was rather direct and requested concrete decisions from the customers. So you should also not be pushy.

Furthermore I am convinced that managers bear a lot of responsibility, and you can repeatedly respect that. After all, people at the management level enjoy positive feedback.

I have already trained many individuals in employee conversations. My experiences in China showed me that the people there place a lot of value on interpersonal contact and a good rapport. Conversations are shaped by interest in the person and highly respectful formulations are always coming up which underline the fact that two people are communication with one another.

The European approach, on the other hand, focuses on the questions, "What is our goal? What is our task? How do we go about it?" Once under stress, the personal aspect fades into the background. (Obviously that is very general and I have also experienced several discussions which form the famous exception to this rule).

Personally, I see it as a great gift to have been able to acquaint myself with both cultures and work cultures, as I have been able to pick out the best aspects and combine them:

In an ideal discussion we will approach the matter with Chinese interest and curiosity about our conversation partner, and we remain thoroughly constructive at the relationship level. This good personal discussion basis helps us on the factual level. Because with a good relationship foundation we can clearly, tangibly and precisely handle objective challenges, various standpoints and tasks.

Martin Brandstötter works as a systematic coach in the Chinese language. This contribution concerns his experiences in personnel and organizational development programs with Austrian and German companies in China. (

Martin Brandstötter







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