Finding the Right Language

We may all speak English, but “language”, in this case, refers to how we communicate to find common understanding.  And that’s hard.

It’s not just academics versus business people.  Different businesses have different languages.  Different departments within businesses have different languages (finance versus sales versus R and D, versus production, etc.).  Children and adults have different languages.  And, of course, different disciplines within the sciences speak and think differently.  We tend to think that when we’ve made a point the other person obviously understands it.   But they’ve actually heard something else.  We all have our special tribal language.

It takes a special skill to be a translator, negotiator or bridge builder between different tribes.  One strategy is to constantly rephrase the same point in multiple ways.   Another is to turn it into a story with a debriefing at the end that explains some insights about the conclusion.  Sometimes it helps to start with a story whose conclusion is not so obvious and then carefully lead the group through the logic of why things turned out the way they did.  Malcom Gladwell does this very artfully in most of his writing.  He loves to have you jump to the wrong conclusion and then explain why.  That way you get surprised and are more likely to remember the point that he was making.  Employing the right metaphor or multiple metaphors with the right timing, humor, confidence and humility is part of the skill.

Good leaders must be masters at communicating in a way that is understood by many tribes.  It is their job to make sure they are understood individually and collectively about organizational goals, principles, issues and values.   One of the best ways to do that is how one deals with a problem, challenge or crisis.  These are teachable moments.  They are real time stories where everyone is listening.  In describing the problem and the strategies for action, the leader can express values, process and desired outcomes (how success will be defined).   They can create a mindset that defines expectations and can inspire small groups to do better as an organized team than they would have as individual tribes.

This is the job of great sports team coaches.  It’s what a symphony conductor does.  It’s what business leaders do.  And it’s what Research and academic leaders do.  Finding that right language is part of the magic of great leadership.

A common concern among leaders is the idea that they won’t be able to successfully change their mindset – the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” outlook.  Good news!  There is a large body of research called neuroplasticity outlining the brain’s powerful ability to change itself and adapt to changing environments. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich’s research in neuroplacticity suggests that in order to be more open to others languages and find common understanding we need only to engage our brains differently.  In the below TED talk Merzenich looks at one of the secrets of the brain’s incredible power: its ability to actively re-wire itself allowing us to update our “Mindset”.  For several real world examples and stories about the endless adaptability of the human brain check out Norman Doidge’s best seller “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science