Finding handholds when you don’t understand the conversation

Here's my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book -- with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions!  (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)
Here’s my fancy new rice cooker and instruction book — with all the buttons and instructions in Japanese. Not sure if my bungling this would be an issue of poor machine translation or more about the number of functions! (My old rice maker only had a cook/warm toggle. I unplugged it to turn it off.)

People are saying things.  They seem to be words.  They seem to be in some type of sentence structure.  But what are they saying?  Or perhaps you are trying to read something that is written in some language that somebody would understand—and that person is not you. 

And it’s too much.  It’s too much.  It begins to wash over you, like the background chatter of other people’s conversations at a café.  Then all of a sudden, you jolt and remember you were supposed to be paying attention because now you are supposed to do something or answer a question and that would be…what, exactly?

Having moved to a country where I am still learning the language (and likely will be for a long time), this is constant.  So when a client mentioned that they were working with some consultants* on something they knew nothing about, and that they found it difficult to follow the conversations and be proactive—it made me think of all the parallels to learning a foreign language.

One of the most challenging things in an unfamiliar language is that you can’t filter.  You hear a combination of sounds and you cannot tell where one word ends and the next begins, let alone which is a noun or a verb or the name of a place.  (This is probably why many people don’t bother reading the standard privacy policy written in legalese.)

My strategy for tackling this inability is to find as many handholds as possible, and to use one to get to the next—the way a climber uses this handhold or that foothold to launch themselves to the next one and eventually climb up the mountain.

What does this mean in understanding a language?  That you go from hearing something like the wah-wah-wah of grownups talking on Peanuts (really a trombone with a mute) to hearing something that you know is a question to hearing, “Would you like something-something?”  And for a topic that’s not your area of expertise, maybe you go from hearing “acronym jargon jargon jargon” to “Some government agency announced that they are making changes to policy-that-applies-to-organizations-that-work-with-children.”  Then you can hear that and know whether or not you need to pay attention (filtering!) based on whether or not your organization works with children.

Here are some tactics for finding handholds (or footholds) when you don’t understand the conversation:

  • Start by identifying words—as in, you can tell when one word ends and the next begins.  (This is probably more for learning an actual foreign language rather than a different work language, but in the latter case, you likely already have this down.)
  • Use props, diagrams, or gestures as much as possible.  As someone who had to order custom sized curtains for her very tall windows using elementary level Japanese—and had them come out the way I intended—I attribute my success to being able to point towards different samples in the store, gesturing, and the diagrams on the order form for getting the measurements into the correct fields.  However, diagrams are also helpful for getting everyone on the same page when you’re dealing with something abstract (data definitions) or working with people across different disciplines.
  • Learn and leverage patterns. For example, I knew that generally after you get seated at a restaurant, a server will come and ask if you are ready to order.  So I can point at the menu even if I don’t actually understand the words in the question.  Familiarity with patterns is helpful not only in routine interactions but also in navigating websites—like which button is “cancel” vs. “submit”!  A work example of this might be that you are working on a project to implement a donor database instead of using spreadsheets.  The pattern, when you implement something new, is that this is a change from how people are used to working, and changes require some management in order to stick.  So even if you know nothing about databases, you can ask about the change management plan.
  • Become familiar with the words that answer who/what/where/when/how.  This might sound silly if you’re say, a fundraiser trying to understand how to accept a cryptocurrency donation, since maybe you and the person explaining it to you both speak English.  However, it’s still helpful to be able to tell which wah-wah-wah is the name of a form of cryptocurrency and which wah-wah-wah is a service or an institution that you need to coordinate the process with.
  • Leverage what you know as a jumping off point and grab onto the next handhold.  When you’re learning a foreign language, it’s really helpful to have a good understanding of the mechanics of your own language.  Let’s say you don’t understand algorithms and your teenage nephew sighs with exasperation every time you ask about a new social media platform.  However, the key communications principle of needing to understand your audience doesn’t change, even if who they are and what appeals to them and what’s the best way to reach them keeps evolving.
  • This can also mean you need to let go of something you do know.  A climber has to let go of the holds they’re using to make their way to the next one and keep climbing up.  Maybe getting a foothold in being more inclusive means letting go of only considering “they” to be a plural pronoun not to be used to refer to a single person.
  • Then build connections back to what you know.  Turn that leap (from one foothold to the next) into a bridge that you can traverse back and forth and build upon in the future.  For example, maybe you learn that the social media algorithm will show people more videos that are similar to ones they liked or spent time interacting with.  Now you can separate the mechanics of which videos get promoted from the principle that people want to watch things that are interesting to them.  This allows you to ask separate questions about how that similarity is determined (by tags or metadata vs. users like you) and questions about what is most interesting to your audience.

While I am fairly comfortable working and communicating across different work languages (and disciplines), I am curious to hear what has worked well for you!  Please share any other tips.

*As a consultant, my stance is that you’ve hired me the consultant to help you.  That includes making sure you actually understand enough to be able to make informed decisions (and implement the solution, if that’s the plan).  Otherwise, my job is not done yet!  So if you’re not understanding what a consultant is telling you, it’s fair to ask them to re-explain in order for you to understand.