The Danger of Speaking the Same Language
My wife is feeding our 2-year-old son, Jake. I overhear the following conversation:
Jake: “Mom, give you carrot.”
(Mom takes the carrot.)
Jake: “No, give YOU carrot.”
Mom: “Give YOU carrot?”
(Mom gives carrot to Jake, who takes one bite and throws it on the floor.)
Jake: “Mom, pick up and give you carrot.”
My son truly thinks “you” means “me,” and I know why. When we teach him words, we point and name different things. In our sentences, we always refer to him as “you” and now he thinks “you” means “Jake.” When we’re not paying attention, we just assume “you” means “you,” which is very frustrating to Jake.
Unfortunately, using the same word to mean different things happens to us as adults all the time.
We train global leadership teams and ask participants to take a “short” break. The Germans come back in 10 minutes, the Americans return in about 15 minutes, and the Brazilians saunter in around 30 minutes later. Even when we specify a time, different cultures add their own buffer for being back on time.
When you speak a different language, you’re on guard against miscommunication because you expect it might happen. The danger of speaking the same language is we assume we know what the other person means and only find out we were wrong when there is an issue. George Bernard Shaw, Nobel Laureate, sums it up well:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
To make sure you’re truly speaking the same language:
Stay curious and challenge assumptions to build trust.
To minimize the risk of miscommunicating, be curious about what the other person really means and frequently check your assumptions. You can do so by asking open-ended questions and by playing back what you’ve heard.
Open-ended questions usually start with What, How, or Why. A good question you can ask is: “What do you mean when you say X?” Other good questions to consider are “How do you envision this playing out?” and “Why is that important to you?”
To check your assumptions, use language such as “it sounds like …” or “what I’m hearing you say is …” and confirm your interpretation of what you’ve heard by ending with “Is that right?”
When my wife was feeding our son, instead of automatically taking the carrot, my wife could have confirmed by saying, “It sounds like you want Mom to have the carrot, is that right?” A bit overkill in this situation but not if that carrot were a $500 million investment.
When you make the effort to understand others, you build trust because they know you value their ideas and opinions. A sign of deep trust between you and your colleague is the open exchange of meaningful information. The more trust you have, the more transparent and better the quality of information you receive.
Remember that trust often is built when you focus on the person rather than the task at hand. Make time to build rapport through informal conversations, a meal, or social events. The better you tune into an individual by asking the right questions and checking your assumptions, the more the other person will want to work with you.
Robert Chen is an executive coach who uses his science, business, and cross-cultural background to help technical leaders communicate with more impact and build better working relationships. He has worked with high-performing leaders in management consulting, banking and financial services, accounting and professional services, and academia. He works at Exec|Comm, a global communication skills consultancy, in the New York office.