Since starting HP CIC, I have been lucky to spend time working with people from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds, heralding from countries all over the world and to whom English is more often than not, their second, sometimes third language. It is from these experiences where I have drawn three lessons on communication that I wish a younger me had possessed the wisdom to understand. I think these lessons are universal and don't just apply to what HP CIC does through our project work.
I am increasingly aware, as so much of our professional, personal and social interactions occur online and in written prose, that language and the manner in which we communicate is increasingly weaponised. Talking to academics, city-types and with many siblings spending significant time in the military, this is not a unique proposition - coded language, acronyms and corporate-speak has long been used to create barriers between groups and hierarchies amongst them.
My fear for my own industry; high performance sport, is that we are so set in maintaining antiquated power-structures where 'knowledge' is king that we are losing sight of why we are communicating! Communication is about sharing, and as Jeremy Riftkin regularly points out, power is shifting - knowledge is no longer something you possess at the expense of someone else. The all-knowing leader is being progressively replaced by freeform networks of knowledge and what you can bring to others within networks, through peer-to-peer sharing and education is the new power - knowledge is no longer a possession but a shared experience.
But the ability to share hinges on our ability to communicate. And on my quest to improve my own communication skills, I am sharing my lessons so far working in and with communities all around the world.
The first lesson, which I haven't included on the final-three, is that I ashamedly can speak only one language; English fluently. I was terrible at languages at school, and despite studying French for six or seven years, can do little more than order an 'Orangina' and thanks to that Moulin Rouge song, ask someone to my bed for the night. In German, I can bark the word for 'butterfly', because it makes me laugh, and in Italian, I can direct someone to a waterfall. Hardly useful phrases from a professional perspective.
So my first lesson in communication would be to speak another language, whatever it might be. Not because speaking multiple languages makes you a better communicator by default, but because through learning another language, I believe you learn to appreciate how you use language. Over the past year I have taken been taking lessons in Swahili, mostly through curiosity than in a focussed attempt to become fluent but judging by a recent interaction in a Ugandan supermarket in South London, my proficiency is still either incredibly lacking, or, I am a comedy genius in East Africa.
So here goes, my three lessons for communication based on my experiences in the developing world...
1. Language Matters
My first lesson is about my use of language (read vocabulary), which I have become increasingly conscious of when communicating with those who speak English as their second or third language. Without a handful of 'phrases', analogies or the curious British figure-of-speech to use as a crutch, I have realised my vocabulary has to be very specific, and very accurate - it's no good using abstract analogies to plug a gap in my knowledge as it will most likely muddy the water and create a whole lot of confusion.
It's definitely not about 'dumbing down' my language, perhaps the most cringe-worthy of British traits whilst speaking to those who don't speak English, but instead it's about being very mindful that I need to speak with complete clarity - for example, I'm conscious I can't get away with using the more colloquial 'CV' or 'cardio' if we've been using the word 'conditioning' leading up to that moment with someone who's still learning English as a second language. Similarly, if I am making a (potentially futile and pitiful) attempt at communicating in another language, learning vocab is hard enough without providing 19 different words for something that largely means the same thing.
The up-side is that being more mindful of language has probably made me speak slower, type more carefully and think about the words I use more, which in turn, probably means I speak or type a little less. Carrying this back to 'normal life' in the UK, I have been aware that I am still conscious of my use of language when speaking to English-speakers, trying to ensure what I say is clearer, more concise and lacking my more natural "around-the-houses" filler - someone even commenting recently that my explanations of things feel less frenzied, calmer and less "blah" than they have before.
2. Understand your Audience
It's important to understand and attend to cultural norms when communicating, whether that be visiting a new region, country or city or just a new organisation, club or team. Beyond simple manners, it's only right that if you are a visitor or guest anywhere that you put the work in before arriving to understand whats acceptable, and whats not, what the broad social conventions are and what are the taboos. So, my second lesson in communication centres around understanding your audience.
In my experience since working with HP CIC, I've been privy to complete communication breakdowns based purely on an inability to accept the existence of cultural differences and the associated approaches to communication rather than a difference in opinion, direction or understanding. What I've learnt is more important however, is to maintain a 'beginners mindset' when it comes to different cultures, if assumption is the mother of all f**k ups, then assuming you understand a culture preemptively is the mother of alienating those you are trying to communicate with. The majority of our work at HP CIC focusses on sub-Saharan Africa, a region with the most linguistic diversity in the world and one where presumptions about African homogeneity tend to conceal the complex, interconnected but diverse cultures that live there. I mention this because I don't think there is a shortcut to breaking down barriers to cross-cultural communication - all too often we like to "hack" our way to solutions - how do I communicate with African's? How do I communicate with people who live in the developing world?
It sounds ludicrous, but in an attempt to be mindful of our surroundings and of cultural sensitivities, we are often overly-keen to define huge swathes of people by our own prejudiced groupings and then paint everyone within them as one and the same for our own convenience. Of course, generalising Africa, or the 'developing world' as one is just as dangerous as grouping all football players as one, all track and field athletes as another or all millennials as sharing the same values, beliefs and communication quirks as one another.
To bring it back to from the abstract, it's been an important lesson for me personally to continue to make big efforts to understand my audience as individuals wherever I am in the world, and continuously update that knowledge, mindful of cultural differences, but not allowing them to define relationships or how I communicate as part of them.
3. Keep the Main Thing, the Main Thing!
My final lesson may seem to contradict the first lesson, that language is critically important to effective communication - it is that; when it comes to communication, keep the main thing, the main thing - if whoever you are communicating with, understands you, then mission accomplished, the rest is just fluff. The objective of any type of communication is to quite simply, share and if you get what I mean, and I get what you mean, then job done!
Communication shouldn't be a competition and it shouldn't be used to silence or intimidate others. The ability to bamboozle your peers, colleagues, friends or clients is not a skill, its a communication failure. The goal of any interaction should be to share, and to inform someone else, not withhold information or confuse.
Again, this isn't a reason to dumb down language or what you are trying to communicate - on the contrary, the idea of being able to properly communicate complex subject matter in simple, yet accurate terms creates a boat-load of work to understand things better. After all, if you can't explain something to a five year old, then you don't understand it well enough.
Carrying this lesson back to normal life, away from my more 'niche' working day, I think its been a lesson in humility for me personally; sounding really clever has never been less appealing to me, my "KPI" in communication is gauged on my ability to effectively communicate to an evermore diverse audience, rather than present things blindly in the hope that others catch on.
My own journey in understanding how to communicate better is ongoing and I feel like I become more and more aware with each passing day just how much I don't know in this field, and how much I have to learn. For me, the sports industry has much to learn as well - being the "holder of knowledge" is becoming less important, the gurus, influencers and leaders of the future won't be the ones who know the most, but will be the ones who know the most and can communicate it most effectively, to the largest, most diverse audience. In short, the future belongs to the communicators!
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