I have several times helped Danish companies reconnect with their French business partner, after their communication had “inexplicably” gone dull or even stopped.
The thing is, that the issue might seem inexplicable from the Danish point of view, but with cultural understanding of both sides, the situation can be saved.
In this article, I explain the way I proceed. A method that has shown successful with French and Danish companies. I do think though, that the method might help solving similar situations between other countries than Denmark and France, and I would be very interested to hear your point of view.
The article is a compilation in English of a series of LinkedIn posts I originally wrote in Danish. If you are interested in the Danish posts, you will find links in the comment section.
Now, let us get down to business.
Once again, we are talking of a situation, where the communication between a Danish and a French organisation, that has previously worked well, inexplicably stops or becomes sluggish on the French side.
I herein describe my 5 steps approach and hopefully you can adapt it to your own challenge.
Mails, minutes of meetings and telephone calls. The best is written material.
✔️ I read everything, find the red thread(s) and make a list of who has communicated with whom, I find that establishing a timeline can also be handy later on in the process.
✔️ The important is to consider the facts without interpreting them through cultural lenses. I try not to interpret any other meaning than the one that is stated in the material I read.
The goal is to have facts that both parties have knowledge of and that I can get back to, to support my argumentation in case of doubt or disagreement. This kind of established facts can be necessary since communication in France is more implied (high-context) than in Denmark (low-context), and having the facts in place helps establishing a common ground.
This preparation also addresses another aspect of the French culture: expertise.
Professional expertise is an important element to build up trust. By showing that I, as a newcomer in the conflictual situation, am well prepared and know the ins and outs of the case, I show respect to the French counterpart and position myself as a worthy interlocutor.
When the factual side of the case is in place, it is time to address the soft factors.
The only way to create my own perception of the French protagonists BEFORE I contact the French side, is by asking the Danes.
But I do not settle for feedback such as “nice”, “angry” or “arrogant”. I ask about the details of the situations that have led to these impressions. Then I interpret the described situations through my own cultural lenses, both the French and the Danish.
And I often do not reach to the same conclusion as the Danes!
Cultural misinterpretations do lead to conflicts between business partners. This is not surprising, though still interesting to witness. In such cases will the reconciliation process partly consist of explaining these misinterpretations.
Additionally, I can put myself in the place of the French people in the described situations and imagine how they perceived the Danes. This can also be helpful in the mediation later on, if I should need to explain previous unsuccessful attempts of reconciliation.
When the hard and the soft factors are mapped, I have a good idea of how the dialogue between both parties has taken place and where the misunderstandings leading to the conflict might lie.
Then it is time to prepare for the first contact with the French people.
The pyramidal structure of most businesses in France is well known and must be considered when choosing who to talk to, especially if several protagonists have been involved on the French side.
As a starting point, I go for the department manager or her/his boss. Of course, it depends on the specific situation, but I believe that it is the safest. From there I might be asked to contact someone else, but at least I haven’t hurt the feelings of anyone.
I also match the way I introduce myself, to the position of the person I will talk to. This is to make sure that my message is taken into consideration and not disregarded.
Here are some examples:
👉 To a function manager, I would introduce myself as one working with the management of the Danish company.
👉 For a department manager, I would be a consultant working on the considered project.
👉 For a project manager, I will be a French speaking specialist
I do not disguise the truth and these job descriptions of mine do fit, but I adapt the hierarchical level to that of my contact person, to break down potential hierarchical barriers.
Then it is time for role play…
At that point I have a good idea of the situation and of what the issue might be. But I have not met the French side yet, and there is a great deal of uncertainty. To reduce it, I build up several discussions, where I play both mine and the French part. Asking myself challenging questions from the French side, helps me uncover which piece of information I lack, and I will collect it before proceeding to the real call.
It is the same when sailing. One should be prepared at all time for a weather, that can evolve in unexpected ways.
Once again, the purpose of the role play is to appear as a well-informed and knowledgeable interlocutor, which will contribute to establishing trust with the French counterpart.
It will also increase the chance to keep the discussion running until a constructive result is achieved. I would rather not stop with a “I need to investigate that and get back to you”, or a typically Danish “det finder vi ud af” (“we will find a way”), that would not work well with a French business interlocutor.
Finally the time has come, to take the first contact with the French company.
No mail. A telephone call is the best way.
I honestly believe that all parties involved are only interested in a well-functioning collaboration. If things have evolved into a seemingly frozen conflictual situation, then there must be some sort of a cultural misunderstanding somewhere.
My goal with contacting the French company is to help finding a solution. It is with that mindset that I call, and I do it humbly and respectfully.
I listen to the observations and the point of view from the French side and take notes of the differences with the Danish narratives. It is interesting to see how written facts (e.g. mails) can be interpreted differently depending on the culture of the observer, or how culture related behaviours can be perceived as negative personality traits. As an example, a French participant to a meeting can described as a ticking bomb by the Danish participants, whereas he himself describes a positive and constructive meeting.
Since I know both the Danish and the French culture, I can explain the differences in perception and interpretation, and I can afterwards carry on with finding a solution to the issue, on the basis of my preparative work.
The fact that I know both cultures and language is of course a major help in the process. However, I am convinced that if I did not follow the 5 steps above and only relied on my speaking French, my chances of success would be much limited.
The above might seem like a very long process, but it depends on the specific situation. I usually spend some time on step 1, in collaboration with the Danish company. And step 2 will come out of it at the same time.
Step 3 is a short one, whereas Step 4 gets a lot of attention. Most probably because I am French after all, and I prefer being prepared and in control as much as possible.
You might be asking “how can I use that approach if I am working within the involved Danish organisation?”.
Obviously, if you are personally involved in the collaboration with the French company, that might be difficult to detach yourself enough, to have a neutral view on the situation. I would therefore recommend that a more senior manager takes the lead, and gets the case closed following the 5 steps.
As initially stated, this article is based on my experience with Danish and French companies and I believe, that the described approach will work with other countries presenting a similar cultural gap.
What is your view on this? Do you have other experiences with the same countries or with other?
You are more than welcome to comment this article. I would find it interesting to discuss your point of view.