Lost in Translation: How Being Uncomfortable Can Improve Your Communication

Where the Magic Happens

Picture yourself exploring a foreign land when a hotel employee runs to you with a worried look on his face and explains something rapidly in his native tongue that you are nor presently comprehending. He is communicating something seemingly urgent, yet you are completely confused.

Is the hotel on fire? Is a tsunami coming? Maybe he just needs to borrow your phone. Nonetheless, you’re unable to communicate.

Traveling abroad and overcoming communication barriers can be challenging. But these challenges can help us. They can teach us to communicate in seemingly impossible situations, and communicating across barriers is a transferable skill that can improve your ability to lead.

Making Connections Abroad

By making connections abroad, you learn that communication is less about words and more about how you interact with someone very different from you. Effective communication is vital to leading any team or successful enterprise.

Hanging out with locals or meeting travelers trains you to express yourself outside your comfort zone. During my travels this year to Iceland, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the United Arab Emirates, I’ve found ways to connect with people across seemingly impenetrable barriers.

If you can establish meaningful relationships with people who don’t speak your language or understand your culture, then you are truly becoming a master of communication.

Transferable Skills

Communicating can be just as difficult in the world of business as it is in a foreign country. Lessons I’ve learned to build cross-cultural relationships can easily be applied to leadership challenges.

Here are a few takeaways I have learned about communication in both worlds:

1. Be conscious of your body language. 

When communicating across cultures, you can’t be afraid to act out words you don’t know. Your expressions, movements, and gestures communicate a world of information without words.  You need to be aware of nonverbal faux-pas, like touching someone’s head in Asia, but you also need to be willing to make yourself vulnerable.

How often do you check your phone or look at your watch?  If you wouldn’t do it on a date, don’t do it in front of your employees, who need individualized attention. Your employees will pick up your nonverbal cues just as they would your words. Be intentional in your nonverbal communication. If you want to lead, you need to carry yourself like a leader. Your body language is critical when getting people to believe in you — or connecting with others.

2. Be authentic. 

The only way to build trust across language barriers and different traditions, customs, and habits is to be transparent. Establishing yourself as someone with nothing to gain allows people to open up to you.

To be a charismatic leader, you must gain trust by opening up to people and being helpful. If people think you have only your own interests in mind, you’re not going to get far.  Smile and be genuine — it goes a long way.

3. Use their language. 

Get out of your comfort zone and try speaking a different language. Most people will be receptive and appreciative of your efforts and ignore your mistakes. This is another way to build trust and let people know you care about relating to them.

At work, speak to people in ways and words they understand. If you know your employee is most motivated by encouragement, go out of your way to give praise. Whether you’re speaking to an individual or an audience, you should appeal to their interests, let them know you’re on their team, and use shared vocabulary.

4. Make eye contact. 

People can read what you mean by just looking into your eyes. This can be very important when trying to build a friendship with someone from another culture. Even if you don’t know their language, people understand your true intentions by how you look at them — everything from humor to compassion can be communicated in a glance.

Bridging Misunderstanding

In a foreign place, you learn what it feels like to be confused when someone speaks to you. As a busy leader, you can easily get in the habit of telling people what to do without developing a relationship or effectively expressing your ideas. This can create resentment, as well as confusion.

Your employees probably don’t like being told what to do. They want to understand what you want so they can offer their expertise and assistance.

You don’t need to solve problems for your employees; you need to empower them to solve problems using their own strengths and abilities. As a leader, it’s your job to clearly communicate your goals and needs, and then enable your team to be the problem-solvers you hired them to be.

People are much more likely to work with someone they can understand and relate to — someone they truly like. Slowing down and taking the time to explain yourself thoroughly, clearly, and concisely can be a powerful tool in building relationships that are essential to effective leadership.

In the age of texts, instant messages, emails, tweets, and brevity, taking the time to nurture relationships is often missed.

Bring It Home

Travel can be a time to relax, but you can also use it to make connections worthy of bringing home. Don’t let your vacation go to waste. Challenge yourself, while traveling, to connect with people on a deeper level, and then bring those skills home with you.

Establishing relationships based on trust — even if few words are exchanged — is vital to building communication skills. If you can relay your message across language barriers, then you will be a leader who understands how to bring together a team under one vision.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is Adventurer-in-Residence at Under30Experiences
He gives others Under-30 the Opportunity to Travel and Make Impact
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L2L Contributing Author

1 Comment

  1. Leslie Kohler on July 17, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    Going to a foreign country without communicating with the locals (at whatever level) is like going to a cheesy franchise instead of a locally-owned restaurant. Shallow.

    And I love your observations about communicating with employees. Texting–obviously disrespectful. But not allowing the workforce to be engaged and to provide positive input into improving the business can be just as negative. Good article!