What Is Business Diplomacy?

Learn how to use diplomatic communication to your advantage.

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #134

Here’s an email I recently received from reader Mr. Arsi Yaar:

“After reading your article on diplomatic communication I had some questions.

  1. What exactly is business diplomacy?

  2. Does diplomacy mean using the best ways to hide the truth?

  3. Does diplomacy means responding to a question in a way that confuses the person who asked the question?

  4. Does it mean giving the right answer to the question but in a roundabout way?”

Since I’ve gotten quite a few emails about this topic, I thought I’d write another article to explain further. I am also including a detailed chapter covering this topic in my new book, due out in early 2013. )

What is Diplomacy?

Arsi, your question, “What is diplomacy?” reminded me of this anonymous quote: “Diplomacy is the business of handling a porcupine without disturbing its quills.” I love that quote because it suggests that diplomacy is about handling tough situations with tact and grace. So, to answer your questions; no it’s not about hiding the truth, it’s not about being confusing, and it’s not about being round-about (well...maybe a little bit). Let me explain.

Diplomacy means being respectful of your opponent’s thoughts and opinions. It means listening. It means trying to understand the perspective of others. It means empathizing with others to the best of your ability and working to maintain a positive relationship while effecting change.

However, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you let people steamroll over you. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with your opposition. Diplomacy means that you assert your ideas in a way that will be heard, understood, and accepted. It’s not easy because often you need to do these things when stressed and emotional.

A Real World Example

Let’s say you are in an important meeting and a key member of the team arrives late. You are in a position of leadership. Perhaps you are his boss or the project manager. How would handle the situation? Here are a few options:

  1. You berate the person for being late in front of the entire team.

  2. You use a sarcastic tone and say, “Hey, I’m so glad you finally decided to join us!”

  3. You ask the person in a neutral tone, “Why are you late?”

  4. You say, “You must have gotten stuck in the same traffic I did. Let me summarize where we are so you’re all caught up.”

  5. You wait until after the meeting and you have a private moment then ask, “Is everything Ok? We missed you in the meeting this morning.”

  6. You ignore that the person was late and not say anything at all during the meeting or afterward.

So what would you do? (Go ahead and think about your answer, I’ll wait…)

Diplomacy Depends on Context

I hope you answered, “Well, Lisa, it would depend on the context of the situation. However, I certainly wouldn’t berate the guy, or be sarcastic, or intentionally embarrass him by mentioning the lateness in front of the team.”

A diplomatic professional recognizes that the first 3 responses aren’t respectful or productive. These responses could also damage the relationship of the employee with others in the room. Diplomacy is about treating people with respect while at the same time communicating your opinions.

So, how would a diplomatic professional respond?

First Offence Diplomatic Response

For a first time offence, a diplomatic professional would summarize and move on, especially if the late employee is typically very timely. However, another diplomatic option could be #5 (waiting until after the meeting to privately talk to him about it). This would allow the employee to save face during the meeting, and you would show concern and respect by assuming he knew the meeting was important. Since he was late, he must have a reasonable explanation.

Second Offence Diplomatic Response

[[AdMiddle]If however, the person has been late once before, then a diplomatic response would be to have a private meeting in your office after the meeting. You could explain how much you value his input and that when he is late, you and the rest of the team don’t benefit from his ideas. This, in turn, affects deadlines.

In this context, you might ask: “Do you have any suggestions on how we can consistently get your participation in meetings?” If he doesn’t have any ideas, you would then suggest a few options. For example: “Well, would it work better for you if we changed the time of the meeting? Would it work better if we held our weekly meeting on a different day? Do you need some assistance learning how to use Outlook meeting reminders?”

Third or Fourth Offence Diplomatic Response

However, suppose today’s lateness was yet another instance in a long series of latenesses. And you’ve already had the talks mentioned above. In this context, diplomatic behavior might be to schedule a meeting with HR present to help the employee understand the importance of timeliness and the possible consequences of continued lateness. Perhaps providing a written plan of action steps to help him address this matter would be in order. 

So today’s quick and dirty tips for diplomacy is to listen, respect, and express your views in a way that will be heard by the other person. Diplomacy is knowing what to say, and how to say it, even when your emotions are running high. Personally, I agree with novelist Daniele Vare’s quote on the subject: “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.”

This is Lisa B Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication your success is my business.

For more on this topic and a quiz to test your tact and diplomacy visit the bonus materials found on my personal blog. Oh, and if you really want to learn how to the ins and outs of business diplomacy, consider buying my new book, due out in 2013. 


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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.