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Say It Right Series

Getting Feedback From Chinese Audiences

Posted by hekaiwen March 17, 2009 in the Group General Discussion.

During presentations Western audiences ask questions, Chinese don’t. But you need audience feedback to ensure they understand your points. What can you do? Absent a weapon how can you get Chinese to ask questions?

An easy, if time consuming way is quite simple: don’t leave. Chinese will ask questions, even good questions showing exactly what they don’t know, they just won’t do it in a group. You have to find a way to let them come to you alone or in small groups to ask.

If at some function, a hotel or such, just standing alone in the lobby after your presentation is often good enough. Chinese will circle around, in ones and twos, waiting for their chance to get you alone to ask questions. At an office is a little harder, and takes longer. Keep your office door open and encourage visitors works, as does wandering around, giving many opportunities for staff to find you alone and thus safe to talk to. Sharing tea or lunch works too, but is harder to arrange 1x1 or a very small group.

A senior European engineer once fulminated at length against this Chinese tendency, alternating between the lack of intelligence shown and the enormous costs it caused. His solution: sermons to the almighty machinery god, logic. His sermons fell on deaf ears.

Chinese want to do a good job! Like all people, Chinese do not go to work in the morning hoping to make mistakes and to get in trouble. The difference between Westerners and Chinese is in how they want to be taught. Westerners are ready to be taught directly: you made this mistake, this is why and this is how to do it properly. Moreover Westerners accept, even expect, group learning, using one person’s mistake to teach everyone at the same time.

Chinese want to learn, just in a way that does not cause anyone to lose face. What does “face” here mean?  It means “embarrassment,” as in “He was embarrassed when his mistake was pointed out in front of his coworkers.” Like in so many other areas, the Chinese rule, the how has to right before Chinese will listen to the what, applies.

The engineer hated this answer, believing that training the Chinese way was inefficient, thus illogical. I agreed with him, to a point, but then asked him what was most important, that the Chinese did the job properly or that they learned in the proper way how to the job properly. Which was more important, process or result?

I just spoke at a conference of Compliance Professionals in San Diego. During the reception a man told me about their Chinese brokers seemingly adding unnecessary steps to the import process. I asked him what his objective was, the goods clearing customs in an acceptable timeframe or a process that was efficient. Sputtering he started to say they were the same, but finally admitted they weren’t, and that the acceptable timeframe was most important. Exactly.

I often don’t like, and sometimes don’t even understand, how Chinese do things. So? I care about goals, not methods. So should you. Early in our careers we all heard a variation of, “I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done.” Sadly the way Chinese “get it done” is often so different than Westerners expect that it, the way, becomes more important than the what, the result achieved.

Your goal inside China is not to change the Chinese, it is to achieve your goals. Focus on your goals and let the Chinese worry about how they achieve them. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but this is a general principle. Worry about your own goals, not Chinese methods.

By Greg Bissky @ | Bicultural Business

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