“Are you for REAL?” Language as a window to our soul – Matthew Hill

bubble of communicationLast month marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Iron Curtain. This year I found myself in many training rooms with people whose parents were most affected by these changes.

A common legacy from those times is an abundance of negative language, even from the mouths of employees in dynamic global companies. I thought it pertinent to revisit negative language and ask, “What’s really going on?”

  1. Stress test

From my time in the Czech Republic a generation ago I finally worked out what the excess of questioning, pessimism and doubtful language really signified. The Soviet context had been one of low expectations, cynicism and a constant diet of untruths disseminated via radio, television and newspaper. When the new country invaders from Germany, France UK and America arrived, their language of promises, short-term sacrifice and future riches must have sounded sickeningly familiar.

Over time it became clearer that the doubting questions, the need for proof and the hesitation were intended to stress test the foreigner’s promises. So the reframe for negative language heard in those times was a simple question, “Are you for REAL?”

  1. Science

Entropy describes the universe in its inexorable journey towards chaos and randomness. Pessimists are often closer to the mark with predictions of the future than their optimistic counterparts. The second reframe of negative language can be to see it as the pure and selfless pursuit of accurate forecasting!

  1. Change

I was working with a large group of people from Central and Eastern Europe recently and, as we began an American open form group exercise, I was hit by a wave of resistant language, critical questions and dire predictions. These individuals were subject matter experts and had been ripped out of their home environment and resettled in downtown London.

The context is important. Their reluctance to perform this random task was a reflection of their hesitation to embrace the change that they faced. They were cautious, fearful and their language betrayed their inhabiting something like a childlike state of not knowing.

  1. A good old moan

There is comfort and a bonding warmth to be found in having a moan, gossiping or whinging about shared circumstances. It is a large part of British small talk and I encounter it frequently when travelling to a new country and meeting a new training group. This seems to be a social attempt to unify diversity through articulating common themes and so building a temporary harmony that fosters the conditions in which a relationship can form. This of course comes with the caveat that it is frequently used for political ends in economically challenging times to unify disparate people to hate one minority, foreigners in general or the government of the day.

  1. Forced positivity

If I were to control your working hours communication with the directive that all of your words have to be optimistic, positive and upbeat, would you comply? For a lot of people this is a reality and their answer is yes. A couple of years ago I used to meet socially with a group of guys from a very famous American pharmaceutical company that pursued this linguistic policy.

What struck me as funny and a little tragic was that, under social circumstances in a Twickenham pub, the other side of their lexicon came out in a torrent. It’s as if, for every forced positive phrase, one negative phrase had to be uttered later to restore their inner peaceful balance.

  1. Permitted negativity.

There are 2 examples that stick in my mind. The first are some famous fictional detective figures that have full permission from society to be grumpy old men. Their surly belligerence is portrayed as a essential part of sleuthing genius and their tortuous ability to always get their man.

The second example is much more dangerous. In my UK trainings it is the overtly racist exchanges between English and French executives or the permitted taunts between groups of men and groups of women. The third horror is to be found in the inter-departmental jibes as, for instance, between sales and marketing.

Under the guise of banter, badinage and permitted cheek, these exchanges seem intended as proof of a trusting in-group bond but feel sadly like a rain of micro-inequities and acts of aggression.

Conclusion

Negative phrases provide a fabulous opportunity to ask, “What lies beneath the surface conversation?” Certainly from my time in the Czech Republic it was possible to separate the human from their words and the human’s intention from their deeper fears.

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Rising to the Challenge of the Challenging Delegate Cathy Wellings

Part 4 in the series How to Be an Excellent Intercultural Trainer by Intercultural Trainer Cathy Wellings

This month, Cathy looks at the various breeds of difficult delegate and asks, how can we best manage them during our intercultural training programmes?

Let’s be honest, we have all met those delegates who don’t seem to want to be in the room with us, or who try to dominate every discussion, interrupting their colleagues with their own personal stories or those who say absolutely nothing at all. We can meet these delegates on pretty much any training programme but here we are going to look at some of the challenging behaviours peculiar to intercultural training.

‘Been there, done that, know it all, impress me if you can’

You will meet delegates who have many years of international experience, perhaps they have more experience than you or they have studied cross-cultural management as part of an MBA programme, or perhaps they even grew up in the country you are training on. Most will be humble, keen to extend their knowledge even further and develop new skills and we shouldn’t feel daunted by this experience in itself. However, occasionally these experienced delegates may be waiting for the opportunity to catch you out, disagree with what you say or simply demonstrate their superior knowledge. A key point here is to know and to acknowledge this experience from the outset and to ask for permission to draw on it throughout the day. Make sure you do an individual needs analysis before your training so that you already know what experience you will have in the room and at the start of the training ask each delegate to share what they hope to get from being there so that even the most experienced are pushed to think about gaps they have or new perspectives that might help them. Capitalise on their experience but make sure you also add value through your own expertise – you might also gently challenge some of their assumptions or ask them to think about different approaches to the situations they recount.

‘It depends’

Undoubtedly you will stress the importance of not stereotyping or making sweeping generalisations about cultural groups but you may encounter the delegate who is disinclined to see any kind of cultural norm and can only focus on individuality and exceptions. When asked ‘How might this play out, would this be acceptable, what might be a typical response to this situation in your culture?‘ the response will always be the same: ‘It depends.’ This can be a tricky one to manage as the last thing we want to do is to encourage simplification or over-generalisation but of course when we are talking about culture, particularly on short corporate programmes we do need to make generalisations. Culture is something shared after all. It can help to probe a bit deeper with your questions, to turn them around and perhaps ask what response would be likely when people are stressed or under pressure.

‘When in Rome ok, but this isn’t Rome’

If you are training delegates who work with an international client base or are part of a multicultural workforce but are sat very firmly in their own country you may occasionally hear: ‘Of course I would adapt if I went to visit them in their country but they are here in mine so why should I change the way I normally do things?’ Or perhaps they work for the head office of an organisation that has made an overseas acquisition and feel that; ‘they work for us now and so should adapt to the way we do things.’ It can be helpful to respond to this kind of statement to by asking about desired outcomes. Of course, it’s absolutely fine not to adapt and to do things the way you usually do but what to do you want to get from this particular encounter and how might a slight adaptation in your behaviour help move you both towards a more successful outcome?

‘I’m authentic, take me as you find me’

Sooner or later you will come across the delegate who tells you that it’s much more important to be authentic, to be true to themselves than to try and adjust their behaviour or adapt to the different styles of colleagues or customers from different backgrounds. ‘I prefer to communicate directly, I like to tell it like it is, that’s just me, it’s the way I’ve always been and everyone knows that’s how I am.’   As with the previous example it can be helpful to ask this delegate about desired outcomes and personal impact. Introducing Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity might help them to see the benefits of taking different perspectives.

So be ready for these delegates because at some point you will no doubt encounter them. Allow them space and give them options but if things start to become heated have a private word with them during the coffee break to try and limit their impact on other delegates. Above all else, never take it personally, don’t become defensive and don’t enter into arguments with the difficult delegate.Profile_professional

Making Poland Smile Tim Bridgman

Misery is Optional

Misery is Optional

The above picture is a campaign poster from the recent presidential elections for the Polish city of Łódź. The candidate’s slogan translates to: What hurts you? What f*#ks you off? What do you want?

Poles have a reputation for being dissatisfied and confrontational and posters, such as above, only seem to prove this point. However, not everyone in Poland is of this mindset. Below are two examples of recent campaigns trying to make Poland smile.

Ralph Talmont at TEDxKrakow – Smile!   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fpsv3e48kFY

ASPIRE Happy Video;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK4ePwJB0Ns

But can it really be that simple? And is a smile the final ingredient Poland needs on its road to recovery?

Upon closer examination, you may have noticed that both videos are set in Poland’s most attractive, prosperous and developed city, Kraków, which is now one of the world’s top 10 outsourcing destinations. Furthermore, both videos are also associated to organisations set up in Poland by immigrants from abroad (Australia and Britain) and, obviously, are in the English language.

So the message seems to be that foreign companies setting up in Poland are expecting their Polish workforce to smile and if they don’t this could be detrimental to future relations. This is a tall order for a nation used to short-term contracts, authoritarian bosses and intense (sometimes back-stabbing) competition from colleagues.

Such management techniques and work environments were all used to create an atmosphere of extreme insecurity in the past that guaranteed people would work as hard as possible for as long as possible. It is this that has created the drive behind Poland’s tiger economy and, in many ways, is the thing that foreign investors most want to retain.

So who knows what is best now, to be cheerful or to be a grump? After all tigers are not supposed to smile, but to growl at everyone who passes.

Timothy J. Bridgman lives and works in Poland with his young family. He is the author of;
Positively Disappointed: Cross-Cultural Awareness and Communications in Poland
published by SZKOLENIA ŁÓDŹ