My family and I were vacationing in Nice, France three years ago. I had the responsibility of checking us into the hotel because I spoke French. As I listened intently to the check in process, I was a bit nervous to ensure I understood them as well as formulating a response that would be understood. When I spoke to the receptionist, they responded with delight and asked if I was Canadian as my French was very good. I said I was American and they said they sincerely appreciated my effort. It was not typical for Americans to speak to them in French nor make the effort. They suggested we switch to English for the remainder of the transaction and they were exceptionally helpful to settle us in.
Language is the vehicle to exchange information and achieve a result. Language is built on a foundation of history and culture unique to a group of people. When we seek to understand that foundation and leverage language to engage, we build trust and can move forward together.
Leadership has its own language based on the group we are meant to serve. The quicker we can learn that unique language, the faster we can make a lasting impact.
The Language of Simplicity: Keep it simple and people will thank you.
A colleague and I had the honor and challenge of teaching an international group of professionals in Benicarlo Spain. We were teaching Six Sigma Methodology and I was given the task of explaining ANOVA (Analysis of Variation) and do it in a way that was concise and easy to understand. My colleague had other sections of equally challenging content to teach. When we broke for lunch and I sat down with the students, what transpired next is the key to connection through language. They said they liked my colleague very much, but when they spoke they used American English which was full of slang and they could not understand him. They said when I spoke, it was very simple and they could easily process the technical content and translate more easily with me. They thanked me for speaking proper English because I enabled them in the learning process.
The important message is to understand your audience and speak in a language that enables them to process new information and gives them the power to engage in conversation. That is how we create connection and trust. When we speak at a level where they cannot process all the words or expressions, we break their confidence and fail to connect. As leaders, by keeping things simple we create better connections.
The Language of the Locals – They’ll pick you up when you stumble and fall.
During a product transfer for a flavor company from Ireland to the Netherlands, I was interacting with many Dutch colleagues in the factory to enable that process. The Dutch speak exceptional English so it was easy to work with them. It was also important to me to try to learn words and expressions in Dutch so I could read their technical content and also listen to conversations in their native language. When I would respond with a few simple phrases, they were helpful to make corrections to enable me to continue to learn.
In business, we go into many situations where the technical language, the acronyms and words are foreign to us. When we speak in our own language, it takes longer to bring the conversations together and stalls the trust we need to build. It is better to be vulnerable and start to use the other group’s language and make mistakes. When we ask simple questions to explain their unique language, the team is eager to help and in the process it builds trust. When we start using their language, we move the conversation along faster and together.
The Language of the Body: Learn the culture for clues into human connection.
Singapore is a beautiful country and yet again I had the good fortune to teach an international group of colleagues. This time people came to us from Indonesia, India, Thailand, China and Japan who spoke various levels of English. This time, the challenge was not to speak in concise English, but to read what was said… and not said. Our students listened intently to every word we said and took copious notes. When we would take a pause in the training to ask if people had questions, there was silence in the room.
As an instructor, doubt ran through my head. Did we teach it so well, there were no questions? Did we teach it and no one understood what we said? It was very hard to read the situation, but we continued to move forward in hopes we were making an impact.
During a team dinner, I was able to speak to one of the students to ask what they thought of the training. They said they were enjoying it very much and were eager to apply for the training when they returned to their country. This gave me permission to ask the next question about why the students were not asking questions. They responded that in their culture, they do not question the teacher. It is their responsibility to work harder to understand the material on their own. It would bring shame to them if they asked a question.
Had I known that beforehand, we might have restructured the training. We could have provided some knowledge and then asked the students to work in small groups. Then I could listen to their knowledge level and provide additional clarification where I saw gaps in their comprehension.
The lesson for leadership is to not assume comprehension amongst the team. We need to take the responsibility to ensure we read the body language and cultural norms to know if people will speak up when there is doubt. While difficult for some leaders, we need to slow down in order to speed up and bring others along with us. Language is meant to connect people.
Every room you enter is an opportunity to learn a new language and build human connection.
Your willingness regardless of your performance level is what humanizes you to your team. Your team will help you in learning the new language and work with you to create a new language together.
Starting today, think about what new project or team will you impact and ask yourself what language will you need to learn?
I find through casual conversation leveraging The CEOs Compass often has all the answers for you to get back on track.
The CEO’s Compass: Your Guide to Get Back on Track – If you’re that leader who feels in their gut something is off track, this could be the resource for you.
LINGO: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible – by Jeffrey Shaw I’m a big fan of leveraging marketing and messaging to people I want to connect with. That is why I’ve leveraged an amazing marketing team that helps me to connect with you and my ideal client. When we learn the other person’s language we build human connection. This book by Jeffrey Shaw was very helpful as a business book, but it’s also important for the aspiring leader within an organization. Enjoy!
Future World Music – Anthem of the World by Kai Hansen – it is only fitting I share a favorite song that is a celebration of cultures. I love this song because it is so simple and uplifting. If we seek to understand individual cultures and their language we can make beautiful music together. Enjoy!
This episode will be released on Friday 12/31/21 and I wanted to give you a glimpse into Earl Breon’s quote. It speaks to the reliance of a leader on their team to help them be successful.
“You have to have a unique blend of believing that you can do whatever you need to do, but also know in the back of your mind that there’s a time when you will need to rely on the team.”
P.S. We will be out of the office 12/24/21-1/3/22. We wish you a safe, happy & healthy Holiday.