One of my direct reports has a very thick accent. His job is to define business needs for our customers and hand them off to our database techs. When he does this orally, none of us understand much of what he is saying. I sense he is exasperated as well because he is trying his best and cares about his work. He has good writing skills, but he is not confident and resists writing anything unless pressed. The rest of the team tries to be patient, but gives up after a point. He is also very sensitive and feels hurt when we ask him to repeat himself. How can I tell him he needs to improve his communication skills?
Lost in Translation
This will be much, much, much easier than you think. And as soon as you believe that—it will be much, much, much easier!
You are making two mistakes here that are easy to fix:
1. You are having content conversations when you need to have a relationship one.
2. You are feeding his defensiveness with your own.
First, it sounds like you are talking about database requirements when you need to talk about your working relationship. One of the most common mistakes in crucial conversations is talking about the wrong thing. If your real concern is, “we need a more efficient way of communicating,” but what you’re discussing is, “what kind of user interface does the client need?”—the real issue will drive everything. You’ll be discussing screen designs but underlying it will be nervousness, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity, because you’re not talking about what’s truly going on. Everyone senses it. Everyone knows it. But no one is saying it. So set aside a special time to have this very specific relationship conversation. Don’t wait until there is another frustrating interaction about customer requirements. If you do, then the conversation will be clouded and confused with the content issue on the table.
Second, stop focusing on your fears and start focusing on your goals. One of the reasons he is defensive about this issue is because he senses your fear of it. Research shows that when you feel fear, your body language telegraphs it to others—causing them to become protective. For example, if as you approach him, your voice is tight, you blink a bit too fast, and your arms are crossed over your stomach—he picks up these little behavioral signals and senses there is looming danger. It’s kind of like when you watch someone walk face first into a closed glass door and you reflexively put your hand to your own nose. Specialized neurons in our brains enable us to empathize by triggering shadows of the sensations we would feel if our bodies were in the same circumstances as someone we are watching. The same is true of emotions. You know what embarrassment feels like. It’s when you deliver the opening joke to your speech and no one laughs. Crickets. In fact, most break off eye contact with you and begin looking at their mobile phones. It’s painful. We feel something similar when we watch it happen to someone else (I call it ex-barrassed). Your stomach turns in knots even though it’s not you at the front of the room. This principle works in reverse during crucial conversations. When you show up all in knots, others sense it and begin to feel protective about the topic you are now stammering your way into.
So how can you avoid making the conversation harder than it needs to be? Focus on your goals. This is a mental exercise first, and a conversational one second. Ask yourself, “What awesome, wonderful, out-of-this-world gift can this conversation give to the other person if it goes well?” Get that goal clear in your mind.
For years, I marveled at Kerry Patterson’s ability to give me incredibly direct feedback without making me feel defensive. I remember the first joint writing project I did with him twenty-five years ago. I handed him my first draft. He read it and basically said, “This is awful.” But it didn’t hurt. I wondered why. Over time, I came to realize it was because he had a clear vision in his mind of how good a writer I could be. And he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of helping me get there. When he approached me, he wasn’t fidgety, worried, or clenched up. He was open, excited, and optimistic. He’d start peppering me with instructions about how to improve it, and since he didn’t seem to think the current dismal state of the piece was a big deal—I didn’t either.
You have an incredible gift to offer your colleague. Come into the conversation enthusiastically. Focus on the thought, “I want to have a fabulous and productive working relationship with you for many years. And I want you to be able to succeed with every other English-based team you work with in the future. This conversation can help you do that—isn’t that awesome!”
Then get to the point. Don’t beat around the bush or you’ll telegraph fear. Say, “Our unfamiliarity with your accent makes it really inefficient to communicate sometimes. I want to find a way to make it much, much easier for you and all of us to get things done. Let’s talk!”
I can promise you that if this is your attitude coming in, you’ll generate safety rather than sensitivity.