Language Barrier Gone Right
Weeds up to my waist, I surveyed the small garden plot that I had rented for the summer. As I weighed the obstacles in my path, my confidence in my gardening abilities quickly diminished. Pushing aside my fearfulness, little by little, I started to tame the unruly plot, rich soil revealing itself with each willful yank. After several minutes, a gentle tap on my shoulder interrupted my struggle. A woman with worn-through gloves and an empathetic smile kneeled next to me, politely ushering me out of the way. I obliged, latching desperately onto her display of expertise. Our broken dialogue made me quickly realize the language barrier between us, but nonetheless, she managed to teach me a much more effective way to coax the stubborn weeds out of the soil. What would have taken me hours on my own suddenly took a mere twenty minutes with her patient lead. As she gathered her tools to cross the patchwork of square gardens to her own plot, we shared a moment of understanding and exchanged smiles.
Communication Barriers as a Chance for an Enriched Experience
Similarly, at work and in our communities and schools, we encounter people with different interests, languages, cultures, and beliefs. These differences can span from clashing ice cream flavor preferences to opposing worldviews. While these differences sometimes present their challenges, they also have the power to enhance the task at hand by adding new perspectives and experiences to the team toolkit.
As leaders (or leaders-in-training), how do we breed a workplace or team culture of embracing rather than discouraging differences? Are the ways we communicate with each other inclusive and motivational or marginalizing?
Here are a number of ways to communicate across differences to cultivate an inclusive, productive team:
- Openly communicate about needs. Many differences are not apparent to the naked eye. Start conversations about special needs with those on your team from the very beginning. For example, let your employer know when get hired, or as soon as a need arises about a special scheduling barriers. Or, an employee who is slightly hard of hearing may need to be positioned closer to the front of large meetings, or a team member who is a caregiver for an elderly parent may need to do their work remotely on occasion. These accommodations do not have to mean compromising expectations if you help your group understand your ability to fully meet and exceed those expectations. Additionally, it immediately builds a supportive environment. I recently heard a correction to the golden rule, called the platinum rule. Treat others how THEY want to be treated. It just takes asking.
- Bring in expertise if needed. Be realistic when the situation necessitates expertise beyond your knowledge. There may be times when you need to bring in a translation service or another liaison to effectively communicate your message to your team or client base. Many times translators and interpreters not only translate language, but also provide culturally accurate information.
- Do an accessibility audit within your organization. Whether it’s for your internal or external audience, an accessibility audit of the materials distributed could improve relationships and compliance. For example, when using colors to differentiate on graphs and charts, combinations that are still distinguishable for those who are colorblind is an easy fix that can be helpful to many; Simply being aware of the needs of your audience can help you to know what accommodations are important to make.
- Go out of your way to encounter new narratives on a regular basis. There is no way to know if you are being inclusive of a group of people if you do not know a community exists in the first place. Leaders should step out of their comfort zone regularly. This could be as simple as taking a new route to work or seeking out events in your community. This backdrop will help to more effectively provide accurate, accessible information.
- Embrace, don’t just tolerate. Difference is something that adds depth and quality to any team. Creating a space where people can effectively access and communicate information across those differences should be seen as an important component of any effective working group.
No matter what aspect of our community we are trying to improve, embracing the differences between team members should be a top priority. Outliers are often those who challenge norms, and bring together different life experiences and perspectives. Just as we should strive to become outliers, we need to create spaces where outliers within our business and organization can thrive as well. It starts with a simple conversation, or in the example of my garden, a mutual understanding that two heads are better than one. Taking on this challenge will cultivate not only robust vegetables, but healthy and vibrant communities and organizations.