How Language Can Draw Us In or Leave Us Out

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.  

I have three kids and they all speak a different language than I do.

When they start speaking MINECRAFT, I feel lost, and to a certain extent, excluded. It is not something they are doing intentionally or malevolently or even consciously. In fact, I really don’t think they see that it is happening. I know all the words they are using, but the way they are using them just doesn’t compute for me. I have no context for it. Sometimes I try to follow for a while, but eventually I just give up.

Maybe you’ve felt this way before – in a meeting with the finance department, on a call with engineering or IT, or at a conference with folks from a different organization.

We all speak different languages with each of our in-groups – those who have the same training, context, experience, hobby, or passion as we do. Our shared language enhances the connection we feel.

Language has tremendous power to include and exclude.

And we have all been guilty of excluding others through our communication in one way or another – mostly without meaning or realizing it.

So how do we avoid this?

First step, awareness. No surprise there. We have to get outside of our own perspective and realize what may or may not be familiar and accessible to others.

Second step, adaptation. By leveraging our awareness, we can adjust the vocabulary we use, the context we provide, the examples we give, and the stories we tell to meet the audience where they are.

We simply cannot speak to each different audience in the exact same way and expect them all to be able – and willing to put in the necessary effort – to follow.

This is especially important when we are communicating globally, which many of us are doing more than ever – and to a large extent, virtually. Our linguistic adaptation in global conversations is essential, both in driving outcomes and building relationships, and both on site and online.

The next time you are communicating outside of your in-group, listen to yourself through others’ ears. Which words might cause issue? Which acronyms could confuse? Which phrases will not translate? Which analogies are not universal? Do you have the right pace and enough pauses? Can you add meaning and feeling through non-verbals like facial expressions and hand gestures? Once you start looking and truly listening, you realize how many different ways we can adapt, and how many can be achieved without great effort.

And if you aren’t sure – ask. With virtual communication in particular, it is important to build more space into our conversations for check-ins with our audience. Look for opportunities early and often to gauge comprehension, engagement, and agreement. And be prepared to continue adapting if your first efforts are unsuccessful.

These strategies will help us include more people more effectively. It will show we understand their perspective and value their time. And especially when they are on their eighth meeting in a row or working on someone else’s time zone, it will help us be the easiest part of their day.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.