It’s Not What You Said, It’s What They Understood That Matters.

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Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others. Martha Beck

 

 

Last week I had the privilege of having dinner with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, two people I very much admire. They live in Mexico where they, along with a few local staff and numerous volunteers, continue to run the Genesis International Orphanage Foundation, GIOF. It is always fun to hear the latest stories about the children and the adventures they share that are a part of the day-to-day life for GIOF. One story hit home for me as being applicable for all of us in how we communicate.

Greg was sharing how he was working with the Niño’s cleaning up the dishes after dinner. He was using this as an opportunity to work on his Spanish, the product of many books, tapes, classes, immersion, and exposure daily to the language. He was doing very well. He said, “primero raspar los platos” (first you scrape the dishes), “luego te lavas los platos” (then you wash the dishes), and “y luego te desnudas” (and then you rinse). Now, when he got to the rinse part, he was a bit unsure of the proper word to use for ‘rinse’. Greg asked Gabriella, the GOIF director who is a local, how to pronounce ‘rinse’ in Spanish to which she responded “de enjuagar.” Greg then pronounced it the way that he heard it, “te desnudes.” All the children stopped what they were doing and, with mouths open, just stared at Greg. If that wasn’t enough of an indication that something was wrong, the red flush and look on Gabriella’s face as she came up beside him and said, “Oh no, you will need to apologize to the orphanage director”, was even greater.  Greg said, “Why? What? I just repeated what you told me.” Gabriella quickly replied, “No Greg. What I said was ‘de enjuagar’. You said ‘te desnudes’, which means to get naked!” Of course, by this time the children were all laughing and repeating in sing-song fashion, “now they would all get naked.” You know how impressionable young children are and they never forget and always repeat everything. Oh wow, what had Greg done?

Let me stop for a minute and give you some background information. GIOF works with many orphanages and indigenous groups throughout Baja Mexico. All of them have religious affiliation and can often be considered conservative by American standards.  This particular orphanage could be considered more conservative than most and Gabriella and Greg had been working very hard to have GIOF leave a good impression. I am sure that as Gabriella heard Greg tell the Niño’s that after they washed the dishes then they should “get naked” she swiftly saw all of that hard work being flushed down the drain of misunderstanding.  Fortunately, the orphanage directors had a sense of humor and understood Greg’s unintended transgression from his translation. I think the swift apology helped.

After I finished laughing at Greg’s story, I started thinking about the many times I have made unfortunate misses in communication myself. I just don’t have the excuse of translating from English to Spanish.  While I do try to get verbal confirmation that what I said or meant to convey was heard and understood, it is easy to assume that the receiving party is on the same page. The final step of hearing them confirm back with the action they will take often times gets missed. This is especially important when working with someone for the first time. There are so many subtle ways to interpret things that until you have worked together for a while it is difficult to ensure that what you said was really what they heard. This is especially important for those of us who live in a world of technical terms, local jargon, and of course the ever-present acronyms.

It was a pleasure to reconnect with Greg and his wife Patti and to find that no matter what you do every day we all can, at times, face the same challenges in communicating effectively. So when I am working with someone for the first time, I will from now on think of Greg and his “get naked” faux pas.  This will be a humorous reminder to me to make sure that I get confirmation that what I said was indeed what they heard and what I intended to communicate.

For more information about GIOF visit http://www.giof.org/support_giof.html