Diplomatic language

Hello everybody. I’m Victoria Rennoldson, Communication and Culture Coach, and welcome to Wednesday Words with communication and cultural strategies and skills for you to learn. You can choose to watch this by clicking ‘play’ on the video above, which also has subtitles.

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Finally, you can also read the blog as well, right here below.

Today, I am going to be talking about diplomatic communication.

There are times when we need to communicate bad news or negative messages – information that might not be what the other person wants to hear. And there are times when we can communicate that in a direct way: we are open, we share it, we find a solution and we move on. But there are other times when it’s more challenging to communicate this and we might need to have a more diplomatic approach, more softened language.

This need for a gentler approach could be for a number of different reasons: perhaps it’s about the type of relationship you have with that person; maybe it’s someone you don’t know very well; perhaps it’s an incredibly important relationship, for example with clients or customers. Or it might be because of the context, such as a negotiation or meeting with high stakes. I’m sure you will recognise that there are many situations where we don’t want to be too direct, where we may have to tread carefully when sharing the problem or the bad news.

In some cultures, this style of softened and diplomatic communication is more common. So, for example, in the UK where I’m based, it comes into play quite often in tricky situations. This is because it comes from the belief, in British culture, that when you’re criticising people’s work and ideas, it can be seen as something personal, as if you’re criticising the person. So this style of diplomatic language is often used, for example, when you’re disagreeing with someone.

However, saying this, you probably wouldn’t want to communicate like this all the time – no matter what the situation, context, or relationship dynamic. If you did, it might be a little bit confusing to others and lead to misunderstandings. We do need to understand it, though, because it often comes up, which is why it is the topic of today’s Wednesday Words.

Here are two key reasons why it’s important to learn about diplomatic communication:

First of all, you want to be able to understand, clearly, what someone is communicating. Do you understand the real intended meaning behind the words they are using? It can be more difficult to understand if they are using this particular style of softened language which might not be familiar or clear to you.

Secondly, you also want to have the option of using this type of language yourself in situations where you want to be more indirect and diplomatic in your communication. But do remember, you always have a choice.

So let’s get the five key techniques to communicate more diplomatically.

Key technique #1: Appearances

In a situation where there is bad news to pass on, it can be helpful to use phrases such as ‘it seems’, ‘it appears’ or ‘there seems to be a problem’, because in this way we are not being absolute. We are using the passive voice which can be a softer approach to sharing negative information.

Key technique #2: Conditionals

The ‘conditional tense’, as in most languages, is used as a way to express a question or lack of certainty. So, rather than saying ‘there is a problem’, you might instead say: ‘there could be a problem’, or ‘there might be some challenges coming up’. The words you are using – such as ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘could’, or ‘would’ – can help soften the impact of what you’re trying to communicate.

Key technique #3: Double negative

The ‘double negative’ is perhaps the one which is most confusing for people because the negative message is hidden ‘inside’ the verb. So rather than saying: ‘this will be late’, we might say something like: ‘oh, it’s not going to be on time’. Or rather than saying: ‘oh, this is expensive’, I might say something like: ‘it’s not very good value’. In this way, we place the negative message inside the verb, meaning you then end up with a more positive adjective, noun or verb. This basically softens the impact of the negative message, meaning you might have to do some decoding to work out what’s really being communicated.

Key technique #4: Modifying adjectives

Modifying adjectives means using a short phrase, such as ‘fairly’, ‘a bit’, ‘a little’ or ‘quite’, in order to soften the impact of the adjective that comes immediately after. So if I say something is ‘a little late’, I might actually mean ‘it is very late’. Or if I say something is ‘a bit expensive’, I might actually mean ‘that’s too expensive’, or ‘that’s not within my budget’.

Key technique #5: ‘Sorry’

The fifth and final technique in this softer, more diplomatic approach to communication is the word ‘sorry’. Now, this is a huge topic in itself, which I’ve touched on briefly in previous episodes of Wednesday Words. It is also an important point to include here. ‘Sorry’ is a fascinating word, because in English it can of course be an apology. When we’ve done something wrong, we say ‘sorry’ to apologise for what’s happened. But it doesn’t have to act as an apology. In the context of diplomatic communication, ‘sorry’ can serve as a ‘linguistic flag’. It’s effectively acting as an introductory phrase when you want to say: here comes the bad news, or here is something that you are not going to want to hear. An example of this might be: ‘Sorry, I’m not sure I agree with you’. A similar phrase would be: ‘I’m afraid’, for example – ‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple, we can’t do that’. So, I would suggest you watch out for these kinds of phrases and remember that the person isn’t necessarily apologising to you; they are simply flagging that they’re going to be sharing some kind of bad news with you.

Quick summary

Here are two key points for you to take away:

Take away #1: it’s good to recognise this ‘diplomatic communication’ in context so that when you hear it, you are better able to interpret what’s going on and decode the actual message the person is trying to share with you.

Take away #2: you have the option to start using this type of language yourself. Do remember that while we want to be able to use diplomatic communication, we don’t want to be using it all the time. It could cause confusion and misunderstanding if we over-use it. Ideally, you would choose to apply it in specific situations, where the context or situation needs it.

If you have any questions – either on today’s topic of diplomatic communication or more broadly about your communication skills – then please contact me. I always love to hear your questions and comments, and to find out what you found particularly useful.

I look forward to welcoming you again next week … to Wednesday Words!

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