Recently I returned from a lovely week long vacation in Mexico, a country which holds a special place in my heart since it’s where I first studied Spanish full-time. Being able to speak the language while traveling in a foreign country is obviously a valuable skill, but it also makes you more keenly aware of fellow travelers who have a lesser command of the language, or none at all for that matter — something I bore witness to on various occasions during my trip.
What’s interesting is the typical approach that people take when they begin to struggle to communicate with someone who speaks a different language. Often you’ll see a change in amplitude — words become louder, gestures become larger, and exasperation seeps into vocal tones. Despite these myriad alterations the one thing that doesn’t change is the contents of the message. It’s funny how wrong we can be in our thinking that these changes will somehow improve the message recipient’s comprehension, even though we know that if a humanoid approached us speaking Klingon it wouldn’t matter whether it was in a library-friendly sotto voce or through Spinal Tap’s amplifier cranked up to eleven — we still wouldn’t understand.
Savvier travelers have learned that when at first one is not understood, then it’s not time to turn up the volume, but rather time to try a different approach. By cobbling together a couple of words in the local language with some Oscar-worthy charades and a few sound effects, the likelihood of communication breakthrough increases dramatically.
What’s most interesting, though, is how often I’ve seen the same communication cycle in business. People will try to communicate something to a co-worker, without the desired effect — the other person failing to comprehend what is being said. Instead of changing tacks, there’s often frustration and escalation. The same message is repeated over and over with increased agitation. There’s this inherent sense that the onus is on the other person to understand us instead of it being on ourselves to change our message to make it clearer.
Empathy is key in these situations. By seeking to understand the other person and her situation, we can try alternate ways of expressing a point. This way we can channel our energy more productively and gain a better understanding that sometimes it’s not the what that people are having trouble understanding, but rather how you’re delivering the information.
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