It is a uniquely humbling experience not being able to communicate with anyone around you. Even the most trivial transactions become anxiety-producing challenges – for instance, asking for directions, paying a toll, or refueling your car at a gas station. You constantly search those around you for non-verbal cues: facial expressions, subtle gestures, a roll of the eyes – focusing intently on every detail. Do they understand me? Am I offending them? Do I look like an idiot?
During our two-week honeymoon in France, Miranda and I spent a lot of time asking ourselves these questions.
Overall, the trip was amazing. Beautiful scenery, historic sights, and some of the best food and wine we’ve ever tasted. All around – a fantastic honeymoon.
The only small problem was that Miranda and I speak maybe five words of French total between us. This made for, among other things, a great case study on communication challenges.
Throughout the trip, Miranda and I took turns trying to communicate with people. Whether it was a waiter at dinner, a taxi driver, or a shopkeeper – half of the time I would try to communicate our intentions and half the time I got to watch Miranda try. This was a great arrangement – partially because I only had to humiliate myself half of the time – but also because Miranda and I got to experiment with different communications techniques and learn from each other.
Early in the trip, I didn’t do so well. After clearly announcing my intent to communicate using body orientation and eye contact, I would typically just stutter and point until people either understood what I was trying to say, or spoke to me in English. People generally responded to the “stutter and point” technique with a mix of irritation and condescension.
Later in the trip, after much experimentation, we learned that we could use our five words of French to help people understand our situation: that is – we were tourists, spoke no French, and usually wanted to buy something from them.
It seems like small change, but just these few scraps of dialogue substantially improved the way people responded to us. They quickly understood our situation and then worked with us, as teammates, to figure out how to achieve our common goal.
Reflecting back on our specific communication struggles, I actually think that every communication issue – at its core – is really made up of two fundamental problems.
1) Is this a conversation between teammates or adversaries?
2) The actual exchange of words to solve the problem.
Let me explain.
At no time during our trip did we speak enough French to really communicate what we wanted. However, in the second half of the trip people worked with us to get what we wanted, while in the first half people were generally indifferent and uninterested in engaging with us.
The key difference is that halfway through the trip we started to use our limited French to explain to people that we were teammates, not adversaries.
In any situation, there are really three keys to establishing that you’re on the same team:
a) Both parties understand the common goal that you’re trying to accomplish. Implicit understanding is not enough here – it has to be explicitly stated and understood between both parties that you’re working for a mutually beneficial outcome.
b) They explicitly understand your perspective
c) You explicitly understand their perspective
As long as you satisfy these three goals, you have alignment and can proceed to challenge #2 – the actual words you need to transact to solve the problem.
With any communication challenge, the trick is that 80% of the problem is really #1: making sure that you’re teammates and not adversaries. Actually exchanging the appropriate words to solve the problem is the easy part. Working together, people can overcome great challenges as long as they cooperate. As I was able to see over the past few weeks, even when you literally don’t speak the same language, you can accomplish a common goal, as long as you’re on the same team and working together.
Unfortunately, the inverse here applies as well. If you or they think – for even a second – that you might be adversaries or that you’re not both aligned toward a common goal, no amount of words of meetings can overcome that barrier. Even if you speak the same language, are from the same country – or – even if you work for the same company.