W-Questions

Management training. In Germany’s. Thirty or so Germans in the room. We discuss the topic of agreements. They ask: “But Herr Magee, how do we know when an American ‘yes’ is a commitment?” My response: “Ask the famous w-questions: what, when, why, who, and of course, the how. The more specific the responses are, the higher the level of commitment.”

“Stop by next time you’re in town” is not an invitation, but a polite way of saying “It was nice meeting you. It would be nice if we ran into each other again.” Closer to a commitment would be: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address and work phone number.”

Even more committed would be: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address, work and cell phone number.” And the next level of commitment sounds like this: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my email address, work and cell phone number. When will you be coming through? Any chance you’ll be in the area in June?” And so on.

The more explicit (detailed) the information, the greater the commitment: “Stop by next time you’re in town. Here is my address and home phone number. When will you be coming through? Any chance you’ll be in the area in June? If so, how about the weekend of June 12-13? We’re having a summer party at our place. We’d love to have you come by.”

“No!” So direct, hard, determined.

Aha! The German training participants get it. Many of them have been disappointed before. They thought Americans had broken commitments. Now they understand. Not Americans breaking their words. Not Americans as superficial. But, Americans who signal different levels of commitment.

Now they’re not as difficult to read. Simply ask questions which gain definition: “Sure. Love to come by and talk again. When were you thinking? I’ll be back in town at the end of next month. Should we check our calendars now or do you want to get back to me?”

Valuable. I helped them understand. But, what about me. An American, often unsure about how to react to the German no. It can come so fast, so hard, so definitive. It throws us off balance. Leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Sometimes we wish we had never asked.

A hand goes up. A big smile. He stands up. Six foot eight inches tall. Lean, fit, friendly. “Oh, that’s easy, Herr Magee. Just as we need to ask Americans the w-questions, Americans need to ask us Germans similar questions.” My eyes get big. Of course!

He continues. “See the German ‘no’ as a first response, but not firm. Identify its component parts, the reasons, for the ‘no’, then counter them one at a time. Give your counterpart good, logical reasons why his reluctance is unfounded.” All in the group nod as if so obvious, so self-stated.

Very valuable. He, they, helped me. It had never occurred to me. How blind I was.

Reflection

If you are American and have received a ‘no’ from a German colleague, supplier or customer, how did you react to it? Did you accept as such or did you try to convert it into a ‘yes’?

And if you are German, have you ever received what you thought was a commitment from an American, only to find out later that it was not really a commitment?

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