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Monday, May 7, 2012

Words and Experiences Are Important to Communication - Who Is On First?

Words are not the only part of communication and their interpretation depends on prior leaning experiences.  It is amazing that some people and cultures are able to relay exact messages but with some degree of effort, it is possible.  Communication between investors, partners, or staff is complex.  Even the most experienced managers, negotiators, or diplomats have problems at times.  Your goals in a startup must always be to provide clear communication and understanding with all those around you.

One way to show differences in interpretations comes from a discussion I had with a scientist on my research team a number of years ago.  He relayed the following statement from a news article:  Americans strive to succeed while Europeans strive to not fail.  To some, the comparisons are the same while to others Americans are risk takers, while Europeans are conservative in their approach.  The end goals are the same, but the approach to success is different.  Yet, the language sounds like the same description if provided using different words.

Communication between cultures often relies on how the experiences and relationships structured the lives of those in different countries.  In some cultures, nodding one’s head means they hear you, while in others it means yes.  The same can come from the use of the words yes in some cultures; i.e. they heard you but they may not agree.  I spent some time working with a scientific team in a foreign country transitioning to a more democratic style of government.  The scientists were trying to become entrepreneurs and creating a company.  My messages on being aggressive in the work place and other goals did not translate the same to them because they had never experienced the American actions related to the words.  Translation: “They thought they were doing as instructed, but they had no basis to understand the instructions.  The words were there, the underlying understanding of those words were different.

In a recent discussion with an administrator about an employee, the administrator thought the employee was not communicating effectively due to language.  The administrator did not understand that the employee’s life in a different country did not translate into the employee understanding the words and actions in the way that the administrator did.  Both were excellent at their jobs, but the communication gap existed because the administration in general and the employee failed to understand each other.  Understanding takes extra effort when one is adding the cultural differences into the mix of the communication.

When I am asked questions and I answer them directly.  My tendency is to take the questions in a literal meaning.  Sometimes the questions are not literal but relate to a different question.  This failure to see the real issues and answer a question that is not what was intended creates confusion.  The ultimate goal is to communicate and, at times, it takes listening and interpreting the individuals to do so.  It is hard to see the real questions when not asked directly.  It is hard to interpret the answers when seeking an answer to a different question; i.e.  communication at its worse.

One of my favorite comedy skits came from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello:  Who is on First .  This skit highlights the inability to convey the meaning of words and the literal but incorrect interpretation of them.  If you elect to watch this on YouTube, keep in mind that from time to time, your conversations may come across just as confusing.  Take the time to understand and communicate so you are not asked “Who is on First?”