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Speaking The Same Language

Collaboration requires communication, which requires language. So it’s legitimate to ask whether people can truly collaborate when they don’t speak the same language. And if they can, what makes that possible?

The word “language” serves as a convenient metaphor. Engineers and salespeople speak different languages. So do customers and vendors, east coasters and west coasters, teachers and students, executives and staff, men and women, generation X and generation Y, teenagers and their parents, the privileged and the deprived. Your family speaks a different language than mine. Vietnamese is different than French. And at some very personal level, we all speak different languages.

You might find it rewarding at your next meeting to listen to the conversation and count how many different “languages” are represented. Then, if you can, try to notice when one person’s language is being misunderstood by another person. (Extra credit if you are one of them.) And finally, see if you can observe two people bridging their language gap. How do they do that?

Bridging the language gap is a key skill in human interaction, yet most of us don’t pay much attention to it. I have observed many strategies, including forcing one language on everyone (bureaucracy), using a translator (mediation), co-creating a new language (improvisation), and taking turns (empathic listening). We say “speaking the same language”, but apparently it is more complicated than that.

Most of us bridge language gaps in our work lives by doing what comes naturally and hoping for the best. You might call that the school of hard knocks. But if you hope to influence people with your leadership, you will have to get more intentional than that. You will need to school yourself to recognize and expand your repertoire of language-bridging strategies.

I know the promise of more influence is a strong motivation. But I want you to know there is a much bigger payoff than that. If you decide to become a student of language in this way, you will be learning to systematically expand your imagination, not just your repertoire of interpersonal skills. That’s because our beliefs are constrained by our languages. That old chestnut about Eskimos having fifty words for snow is a good illustration (though not strictly true), as is the (truer) observation that an aborigine’s concept of time is circular not linear.

If you’ve never heard those two statements before, they may surprise or even shock you with their novelty. But the same novelty applies to whoever is your partner in conversation, because everyone has some understanding of “reality” that is so foreign to you it would boggle your mind. Every time you stumble across one of those, you are receiving a gift.

You can decline the gift (wish it weren’t so, question their intelligence, question your intelligence). That is the most common reaction and, unfortunately, it leads back into the box that is your own limited imagination. Or you can accept the gift (wonder what the other person’s world feels like, make room in your world for theirs, marvel at the rich variety of beliefs that are possible). That choice leads you outside the box, and may leave you there if you’re lucky.

I hope it does, because that's a fabulous place, and because you will have much more influence from outside the box than you ever had from inside it.