When “I Understand” is Lost in Translation

From 2003's "Lost in Translation" written and directed by Sofia Coppola, with Bill Murray as Bob Harris
From 2003’s “Lost in Translation” written and directed by Sofia Coppola, with Bill Murray as Bob Harris

Tl;dr: This week, a conversation with an executive underscored the complexities of communication and understanding in the workplace. I recalled that misunderstandings can lead to ineffective execution, and the ripple effects can be far-reaching and profound.

Talking past each other: Hidden pitfalls in workplace communications

I work with a number of managers and executives as a sounding board of sorts (mentor and coach are overused terms these days), and one of my friends in this category recently recounted a frustrating story working with their leadership team. As they embarked on a new project, they found themselves in a quagmire of miscommunication and misalignment. At the heart of the issue was the inability to establish clear asks and commitments among the various factions.

In their discussions, they wrestled with articulating expectations and securing consensus on deliverables. It was as if one team was speaking in French and the other in Italian – both beautiful languages, but with enough differences to cause confusion (particularly if you’re not bilingual). One team would outline and define work that was contingent on another group, but would fall short of ensuring that the latter knew of the requests and (more importantly) had accepted the challenges, or called out the bandwidth or capacity constraints that would make it impossible to do the work in the required timeframe.

It was as though they were ships passing in the night – both recognizing the importance of their tasks but unable to make needed concessions and commitments. Overall, disconnection was born out of poor communication, in part due to the challenges in a simple phrase that was bandied about:

“I understand.”

This scenario underscores the critical need for clear communication and mutual understanding in the workplace. Without it, even teams with the best intentions can find themselves at a crossroad, frustrated that the tasks don’t have a shared and understood commitment to get stuff done. It’s a stark reminder that in the world of work, clarity is not just about speaking, but ensuring our words are understood as we intended.

From Hollywood to Tokyo: Lesson in communication

I often share and leverage stories and scenarios found in popular books, cinema and television (we’ll leave my passion for Star Trek and Star Wars for another discussion, which you can see on full display in my post ‘To Boldly Go…’ from earlier this year.) The parables and analogies from these shared cultural experiences can help describe and illustrate key points. One of my favourites is from the film “Lost in Translation” which provides a poignant illustration of the complexities of cross-cultural communication.

Picture this: Bill Murray’s character, the famous actor Bob Harris, is on set on a Tokyo soundstage for a Japanese whiskey commercial. The director passionately articulates a series of intricate instructions… all in Japanese, which the translator then distills into a mere handful of English instructions. Bob is left adrift in a sea of confusion, unsure of his role and approach based on the sparse translation offered.

Director Sofia Coppola masterfully crafted the exchange in this scene, underscoring the challenges and idiosyncrasies navigating completely foreign language landscapes. She originally wrote the scene in English, had it translated into Japanese, and then purposefully kept Bill Murray in the dark about what the actual dialogue meant to capture his honest and transparent reaction.

This one moment encapsulates the essence of feeling “lost in translation” – and serves as a reminder that effective communication is more than just the words exchanged: you need to have an understanding and appreciation of context.

Communicating and learning on the job

Similarly, communication in the workplace can be hard, certainly more so when trying to cross cultural and time zone boundaries where we often find ourselves navigating a maze of nuances. I’ve often said that it’s easy to make something difficult to understand, but hard to make something simple and easily understood.

During one of my first business trips to Japan early in my career, I had the opportunity to work with and spend a great deal of social time with representatives from JETRO, Japan’s External Trade Organization. Before my trip, I’d read several books on Japanese phrases, business and cultural customs, and social events. I learned about the exchange of business cards, the art of the formal bow (and how low to go), and most importantly, nomikai – essentially, Japanese business dinners that are a fundamental part of Japanese culture. Think of it as a party where business colleagues eat and drink meals together (emphasis on the drinking), much as you may experience in the West but would be way beyond accepted HR margins. It’s a way to build relationships and develop trust, and there’s a lot of Japanese sake and beer at hand that helps serve as the mortar of these foundational meetings.

I’d developed a good relationship (which began months ahead of the visit over faxes and phone calls) with one of my counterparts. After several days and nights of areas of investment, cultural exchanges, and far too much sake, I shared there was a common phrase that many in our English-speaking delegation had heard from our Japanese hosts several times during the visit, but might misunderstand how it was used: “I understand”.

There’s a nuance in the interpretation of that simple phrase. In the Western world, it’s a synonym for agreement, and a quick nod of approval. But I’d come to learn in my trip preparations that “I understand” (in Japanese, loosely “wakari mash ta” ) was used in Japan more to acknowledge what you said was heard and comprehended… but not necessarily that there was any agreement.

Such a subtle difference can lead to misunderstandings when we bring different interpretations into the mix. And they don’t just happen overseas, but can occur when we miss subtle cues and misinterpret intentions.

“I Understand” can be a seemingly harmless landmine

After all, when it comes to bridging cultural divides, it’s not just about understanding each other; it’s about understanding each other better. Such subtle differences can be a source of confusion in teams, and not just multicultural ones. In the case of the simple phrase “I understand” (which many from outside the States have said is second only to the popular use of the common American response “No problem”), it’s like two ships passing in the night, unaware that they’re sailing on different courses.

In this case, the result was a lack of consensus, inefficient and frustrating communications riddled with inadvertent misunderstandings, all resulting in unclear commitments and deliverables. Bridging these gaps in meaning requires a blend of human insight and interpretation – as well as good old-fashioned engagement and precision questioning.

It’s also where the art of rethinking comes into play. We need to challenge our assumptions, question our interpretations, and most importantly, seek clarification. In doing so, we can bridge the gap between “I hear you” and “I agree with you”, fostering better understanding and collaboration in our diverse workplaces.

You may not be as good a communicator as you think

Effective communication in the workplace is the lifeblood of any organization, ensuring that everyone is equipped with the data and insights they need to be effective, foster a positive and collaborative work environment, improve trust, and eliminate inefficiencies. Without clear communication, misunderstandings can arise, leading to confusion, frustration, and decreased productivity.

And it can have an exorbitant cost.

In 10 Tips For Effective Communication In The Workplace, Christiana Jolaoso-Oloyede notes that ineffective communication can be costly for businesses. In the States, that check comes to $12,506 per employee per year, and a staggering $1.2 trillion annually, according to a report from Grammarly on the State of Business Communications. This underscores the importance of clear and effective communication in ensuring smooth operations and preventing unnecessary losses. (Jolaoso also includes the top tips for more effective communications and key skills you may need to incorporate.)

In his article Half Of All Meetings Are A Waste Of Time – Here’s How To Improve Them, Peter High discusses the inefficiency of many workplace meetings, citing that with ~55 million meetings happening every day, at least half of them don’t accomplish very much. Steven Rogelberg, a management professor at UNC Charlotte, suggests that many of the people leading the meetings think that they are better at communicating the goals and running meetings than they really are, significant blind spots that many don’t see. Improving the understanding of the W5 for meetings (particularly the why and the what) would help improve effectiveness and productivity.

Clear Communication in Workplace: Key to Success on emphasizes that the critical role of understanding what’s communicated is a crucial aspect of effective communications. It helps ensure expectations are clear and enabled constructive feedback to be provided, particularly in how leaders drive and endorse the effort.

“The breakdown in collaboration and coordination can give way to missed deadlines, duplication of work, and decreased productivity. Employees may become frustrated with their colleagues, feel that their voices are not being heard, or that they do not have access to the information needed to complete their tasks. Furthermore, poor communication direct impacts customer satisfaction.”

When employees understand the what, they can contribute to the how: improving processes, solving problems, driving productivity, and building a strong organizational reputation. When everyone in an organization understands their roles, responsibilities, and expectations WRT shared outcomes, it helps creates a better and more effective work environment conducive to success.

So, the next time you find yourself getting lost in translation, take a step back. Take the time to understand not just the words spoken, but the intent behind them. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn and grow: embrace the differences and use them to be clear and communicate more effectively. After all, it’s not just about understanding each other; it’s about understanding each other better and building truly effective, inclusive, and productive relationships.

And at dinner in Japan, remember to fill your neighbour’s cup, but don’t fill your own.

#Rethink #Diversity #LostInTranslation #Communication

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)