Learning to speak the language of the people you lead

Earlier this week I had a meeting with a friend struggling with one of her co-workers. Because I also have had some experience with the person she was having difficulty with, she thought I’d be a good person to chat with.

For several minutes she outlined the difficulties she was having – and they were legit.

We all have “stuff” we bring into our relationships. Things that are unhealthy that trigger us into behavior that embarrasses us and hurts other people. And when one person’s “stuff” hits another person’s “stuff” perfectly, the relationship can become explosive. It was clear to me that my friend’s situation fit this scenario.

After sharing her story, she looked at me and said, “How did you deal with it?”

It got me to thinking…

Speaking the language

Years ago I was in South Africa and I ran across a young African missionary. In a period of three minutes I heard him speak perfect English, Afrikaans, and another language I couldn’t identify. I was dumbfounded. Later, I asked him how many South African languages he spoke fluently.

“All of them.”


South Africa has 11 languages generally considered “national” languages, and I confirmed through other friends that this young man did indeed speak all of them perfectly. He was considered by most to be a language savant, but as I got to know him I realized it was his motivation that drove him to learn.

He was motivated by love. He wanted to communicate a message of hope to his countryman, and he knew that while the people in South Africa all understood English, it was their heart language, their “mother tongue”, that would provide him with the opportunity to communicate with the people in a meaningful way. So he dug deep and learned all the languages.

Seek to understand first

As I talked with my friend about her difficult relationship, I asked about how she was communicating with her team member. Was she seeking to understand, or seeking to be understood? Did she communicate with him in a language he could understand, or was she demanding he understand in her language?

Again, this question got me to thinking…

Early in my career my leaders (somewhat dramatically) removed me from some significant projects – projects I cared about deeply. It rocked me to the core of my being. When I asked why, they couldn’t give me a concrete answer. They simply let me know that they were uncomfortable with the way I was communicating with the rest of the team.

A couple months later I had the opportunity to meet with a well-known speaker. As I spun my tale of woe I shared how I had been misunderstood and miscast as a difficult guy. I was hoping for some empathy.

What I got was truth.

At that point in my life I had long, curly red hair and carried myself with, well…a little swagger. When I told the speaker about my good intentions and my pure heart, he looked at me and said, “Look at you man! You walk in like you own the place and you have the verbal skills to put people in their place. That doesn’t make you approachable at all!”

Ouch. But he was right.

I needed to learn to listen, to be curious, and to speak the language of those I hoped to influence. But I also needed to be malleable myself – willing to change when others tried to influence me.

But will I lose “who I am”?

Does that mean I need to lose myself and morph into what others want me to be? No way. But it does mean that I need to understand how other people think and feel, and tailor my communication to their needs, not simply mine.

So as my friend and I chatted about her situation, she understood that her communication was mostly cathartic. She spoke her mind and got things “off her chest”, but she didn’t offer a solution to the problems she was having with her co-worker. By discussing the kind of talking points that would mean something to him, she saw that perhaps, just perhaps, the relationship could improve.

Wrapping it up

The moral of my own story was this: I needed to understand the people I sought to influence, but I was trying to get them to play the game on my turf. My team benefitted from my contribution when I sought to understand them from their perspective. And when I and worked hard to adapt my communication style to the needs of those I was leading, I saw the progress toward success I was looking for.

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