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Why Can’t I Speak Your Language?

Why don’t we all speak the same language when we try to connect in the world of work, friends, and family?   

Why is it that when we speak, we often create more misunderstanding than clarity in our attempt to get our point across? 

Why are there different languages?

According to the account in the book of Genesis, which some see as history and others see as symbol, it all started at the Tower of Babel. 

According to the Genesis account, in ancient Babylon, people spoke the same language and were seen as too powerful when they began to build a city and a tower that would reach to the heavens.   People had gone too far.  So to control them, their languages were confused and they were scattered around the world. 

Thus began a divided world.  People spoke languages but others didn’t understand them.  As time progressed, even within the same language, people spoke in different dialects. And each person gave a different meaning to the same words, so they had the experience of speaking words they thought would be understood, but that fell on deaf ears.

All over the world in offices, factories, homes, even in budding love affairs, people end up saying to each other, “You just don’t speak my language.”

There is nothing in the human experience that makes us more sad, mad, helpless and aggressive than when people just don’t get what we say.

It turns out that not speaking the same language is just a symptom of deeper issues in our difficult attempt to connect with each other in words.  English is the most widely used language for global communication, and there have never been more people who could speak different languages. Today you can even download an app that does an acceptable job of translating from one language to another.

Yet misunderstanding has never been more rampant.  Many of us have a personal policy of never stating our opinion even to those closest to us for fear of misunderstanding.  Leaders of faith communities, political representatives, husbands and wives will pass from this world without every speaking their opinions on anything substantial. 

And that’s a tragedy: The ideas, opinions, and insights of the best minds will likely never get said—it’s too dangerous.  The results in terms of conflict and rejection are just too risky for most people to speak out with any degree of openness.

As a person who has spent my life as a spokesperson for organizations and learning to speak the languages of others, there is no topic more important than learning to speak and hear the languages of the people around me. 
Here are some suggestions that I think are worth passing along:

  1. Work to Achieve Personal Transparency.  Learn to speak each other’s language and to speak up.  Our world has become very close to a world of strangers.   We don’t talk to each other anymore about consequential things outside of chit-chat and work-related subjects.  

    If I were sitting over coffee with someone and asked, “What is your mission in life?” chances are they would think my question highly inappropriate and way too close.  Yet those were the subjects of conversation during the days of the United States’ Founding Fathers—those conversations led to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  When can we discuss important issues today?

    Numbers of books and articles are written each year about the transparent organization.  Transparent organizations are the most successful organizations.   However, there will never be a truly “transformationally transparent” organization until we have people who are transparent—those who speak the same language.  How can I be transparent in an organization until I know who you are?  Are your intentions toward me good? What are your true motivations?  What do you think is true, right, good and fair? 

    When you and I are transparent we can have a “transformationally transparent” organization and world.

  2. Turn Conflict into Discussion.  If you go into a situation with a fixed position, the only thing that will happen in your interchange is that you will defend your position like a fortress against anyone who speaks a different point of view.  The only thing you’ll hear from the person talking to you is the fodder they are providing for you to rebut what they’re saying. 

    Instead of responding to a person with a counter argument, ask a sincere question, “Can you tell me more?  What are the facts that lead to this conclusion?  What is there that we agree on?”  Being able to turn conflict into discussion is one of the most valuable skills you’ll ever learn, and well worth learning.

  3. Increase Your Disagreement Bandwidth. The ability to find a person’s opinion that you don’t agree with to be interesting instead of infuriating is quite rare.  People’s bandwidth for disagreement and dissent is often very narrow.  They split into camps based on what colors they like and where they go on vacation and it goes on from there.  That two people could disagree on politics or religion or major business decisions and still be friends is almost out of the question today.  

    The story is told that psychologist Carl Jung found disagreements to be fascinating discussions and that Sigmund Freud was known to pass out in a faint when disagreed with illustrates how the two extremes react.  The person you disagree with is often quite intelligent.  You just don’t speak the same language.  Learn the language of his or her world through true curiosity about their viewpoint. 

  4. Leave the World the Gift of What You Think and Who You Are.  I believe that you have opinions and insights that are unique to you—that they are so important that you should pass them along to the people around you who are important to you.    I believe that you have an important message that needs to be spoken and that you must express it.   Develop the language to speak your point of view and stand behind it.

There are about 6,500 languages in the world today.  Learning to speak even one language that you didn’t grow up with can take months and years, depending on your proficiency in learning languages.  And there are millions of versions of the language most spoken around you.  Often speaking the same language, is still just Babel.   But it’s really up to you:  You can become skilled in the language of your boss, colleague, children, and significant others.  They are languages you can learn.  Doing so will make at least your part of the world a better place with greater understanding and collaboration.  And your example can become an inspiration to the people around you to grow the skills of “transformational transparency,” communication and curiosity.  

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

(512) 498-9780

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