Imagine you are making a trip to another city. Unfortunately your car is broke down and you have to rely on someone else to get you exactly where you want to go. In an urban area you might call a taxi, take the bus, or ride on a train/subway. If you live out in the sticks like I do, you may have to call a friend or relative to get you where you need to go. Now what if you couldn’t speak and you couldn’t write anything legible for the person to understand where you were going. Also, what if the person giving you the ride couldn’t speak or write anything down either? All of a sudden the communication that we take for granted on a daily basis would probably get very frustrating.
I recently spent several weeks overseas in China. My Mandarin is quite rough to say the least. I can get out some of the basics but I am a long way from holding a conversation. Fortunately most times I had a translator with me to make sure communication went smoothly.
There were times though where I was on my own and it was up to me to get the message across. For example, one day I chose to travel to Beijing which was a two hour drive by car. Fortunately high speed rail was available which was more comfortable and much faster. The challenge was getting from my hotel to the train station, then to Beijing and back.
I had already experienced the challenge of ordering food at the local restaurants. Fortunately most items were pictures and you could point to what you wanted. Yet there were times where the server needed more information that the picture couldn’t provide. Now what? In some cases it was a guess. A few times I was pleasantly surprised with something I didn’t think I ordered but I managed to get by. In any case, it was extremely frustrating on both sides when we couldn’t understand what the other was saying.
Now imagine yourself traveling 80 miles away with little more than a street address. A normally simple process became amazingly complex. I had to plan ahead of time and make sure my translator understood exactly where I wanted to go. I then had to trust that she would write down the correct information. (She must have liked me because I made it back) On top of that, I couldn’t read what she wrote so she needed to translate each phrase back to English so I would know what I was “saying”.
The taxi rides were very interesting because all the taxi drivers loved to talk, or at least all the ones I rode with did. Imagine having a conversation with someone and all you can do is smile, nod and try to explain you don’t understand a single word that person is saying. Again, frustrating.
So what’s my point here besides learn the language? This is an extreme example of how difficult communication can be. Many people who have been in a leadership role can relate to this experience even when the people you are speaking to DO speak the same language. The key is mutual understanding.
The other day a client shared how easy their job would be if it wasn’t for the people and the difficulty understanding them. Two people can interpret information very differently. We often make the assumption that because we understood what we meant, that others should get the same message. Not the case. Many problems can be avoided if we work toward understanding. This is true whether you speak to a taxi driver in China or an employee on the production floor. The better you get at understanding the easier it will be to get things done the right way.