“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.

How to Be an Excellent Intercultural Trainer – Part 1 by Cathy Wellings

The little girl and booksHere is the first in a series of articles on how to be an excellent intercultural trainer. Cathy has worked in the field of intercultural training for over ten years collaborating with numerous global corporate and public sector organisations. As well as delivering training herself, Cathy has worked closely with client decision makers to establish training needs and has also hired and observed many, many intercultural trainers worldwide.

Part 1 – Have a Healthy Relationship with the Theory

  • Know your stuff – it goes without saying that to be an expert in your field you need to have a solid understanding of the academic research and literature. Know the value and as well as the limitations of the models. Then you can make your own call as to if or when you use these models. Long gone are the days when intercultural training could be based purely on personal experience and anecdote but, if like many trainers, you are not convinced by the universal validity of the well known dimensional models, explore more recent research and bring in models from other disciplines if and where appropriate.
  • Use the theory wisely and sparingly – remember that this might be all new for your clients so a visual representation of a model that seems tired and clichéd to you could be a helpful eye-opener to participants in your training room. No model has all the answers and many may be flawed but they can still act as a useful springboard for discussion and debate.
  • Be eclectic – never rely on one lone model or theorist but take a pragmatic approach and bring in what works for you and what may help your client from a range of theories, models and disciplines – without overwhelming them with detail.
  • Be careful of jargon – we need to speak our clients’ language so be mindful of using too much intercultural terminology. Using expressions such as high context, specific versus diffuse or linear active risks confusing your participants and cost you valuable time in defining these complex terms and concepts.
  • Make it relevant and practical – most clients want the ‘so what?’ or ‘the what’s in it for me?’ factors and so avoid giving lengthy theoretical explanations. Instead, introduce appropriate examples that bring the models to life.
  • Know the limitations – Be prepared to show both sides of the coin by highlighting the criticisms of any theory you use as well as offering the counter-arguments. Managing antithesis effectively is one sign of an excellent intercultural trainer.
  • Keep learning – Don’t rest on your laurels and think that because you know about Hall, Hofstede and Trompenaars you are an expert. We all know that intercultural interactions are rarely as straightforward as person from culture A interacting with person from culture B and so more recent, more complex models and theories might serve you and your clients better.

In a nutshell

Treat your relationship with intercultural theory as you would any other close relationship. Be aware of its weaknesses but always be ready to defend it when it’s under attack. Don’t become over-dependent and don’t turn your back on them completely either. Keep reading, be active on social media, attend events when you can and share ideas with other intercultural trainers. Finally, be prepared to experiment with new theories and approaches and challenge them yourself.