Lost in Translation: Become a Better Communicator

I first left my homeland of England in search of personal and professional development in 1998 to venture to the other side of the world and settle in New Zealand. I spent the next 12 years working in New Zealand and Australia before being asked to depart the relatively familiar and comfortable antipodes to lead and grow the Hays business in Hong Kong.

Adapting to a whole new lifestyle in Asia was something that I was admittedly a little uncertain about at first, however I knew there was much to be gained from it.

Most of the challenges that I expected to face related to the general area of communication. Would the ideas for growth and success that worked so well in my native country be adaptable to a totally foreign one? Would I be misinterpreted when conversing with native clients? Would my leadership style require a readjustment?

Blending in…

The Western world has yet to exert its influence on Japan in quite the same fashion that it has in many other corners of the world, and so the culture readjustment has been fairly dramatic. Whilst those I interact with in a professional capacity are either foreign nationals or Japanese natives fluent in English, the vast majority of the Japanese population speak little or no English at all – making for some interesting exchanges when I am going about my everyday chores.

The challenges of living in a non-Westernised country are non-verbal too. There are certain practices and customs here that I have to adhere to, lest I risk causing offence or embarrassment. Blowing your nose in public is considered not just rude but disgusting, for example!

Unlock your potential…

Nose blowing aside, being able to communicate competently is key to your long-term career success. If you struggle with relating ideas, abating conflict, negotiating, motivating other people and so on then you’re unlikely to progress to the highest echelon within your industry.

There are many different facets of communication. I’ve identified three primary branches of personal communication, these are: verbal communication, non-verbal communication (body language) and communication via a third party(technology).

Here are some tips to help you master all three variants:

1. Listen

It’s an obvious one but we all know one or two people who could do with a reminder. There are few things that grate on me more than conversing with a colleague who refuses to listen to your point of view.

Exchanges are meant to be collaborative. By ensuring yours are comprised of equal contributions from each party you not just give yourself the best chance of resolving the contention, but you’ll also earn the other person’s respect. It’s only through listening to others that you can hope to learn anything; talking is just a means of articulating things that you already knew.

 2. Body language

Non-verbal communication is a huge part of communication. One eminent studyproposed that 55% of all communication is body language (another 38% is tone of voice and the remaining 7% is verbal) – a remarkable portion.

Whatever the percentages, your body language has a huge impact on how the other person receives you. Don’t let it contradict what’s coming out of your mouth – when welcoming a new staff member into the team make sure not to adopt the defensive stance of crossing your arms or legs, for example.

One trick I have used is to keep a mirror on my desk so that when I’m on the phone I can monitor by body language – you don’t have to be standing in front of someone to know whether they’re smiling or not.

3.  Be sensitive to cultural differences

In this increasingly globalised world, where many of us are in frequent contact with other professionals from all parts of the globe, it’s important to remain aware of what is regarded as improper etiquette in other cultures.

In the United Arab Emirates it’s considered rude to shake a woman’s hand before she offers you it, whilst in my region of China and Japan local people will be shocked if you give greeting kisses. It’s your obligation to do your research and ensure that you always conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t offend entrenched social mores.

 4. Keep a cool head

It’s important not to try and resolve a serious situation when overcome with stress or frustration. It’s these sorts of occasions where you’re most likely to misinterpret the other person or say something that you will regret.

I apply this logic to emailing too. If I’ve written a particularly blunt email then I will save it as a draft and come back to review it at a time when I’m thinking more rationally. It’s often the case that I end up deleting the draft.

5. In person as much as possible

As asserted by our CEO Alistair Cox in this Influencer blog, face-to-face is still the best form of communication. Don’t email the person next to you with a one person answer, converse with them. This helps to foster bonds but also ensures you’re less likely to be misinterpreted – emails can often be misconstrued, so communicating in person, where the other person has the benefit of hearing your tone of voice and seeing your body language, can help prevent this.

6. Provide feedback, and receive it openly

 If you’re a team leader then providing feedback is a crucial part of your position, however even if you’re not it can be a useful device. Letting someone know they’ve done a good job will invariably help contribute towards a better community spirit in your workplace.

An open and transparent workplace is my preferred environment to work in. If you are sometimes subjected to criticism then receive it amenably. Don’t dismiss it out of hand; the other person is most likely just trying to help you.

7. Timing

You can’t communicate properly when distracted. In order to be at the height of your communicative powers, you need to be completely focused and present in the moment. If you want to ask your boss for a pay rise then accosting them by the water cooler is unlikely to yield the desired results.

Pick the right moment for the right situation. Know when a situation best lends itself to either an in-person conversation, a group meeting or an email.

8. Know your audience

The person you’re conversing with may prefer a visual representation of your message to a verbal one. For example, if you’re updating your team on your financial performance for the last quarter then make the presentation as visual and interactive as possible – there are only so many figures that most of us can comprehend before we zone out.

This is more a point for leaders and essentially comes down to good man-management. You can’t treat all of your team the same, different individuals will require different approaches in order to be motivated.

 9. Project confidence

 Don’t be too overbearing, but try to have real conviction in everything that you say. Mumbling is a personal bugbear of mine – it’s very off-putting for the other party, especially when attending interviews.

There are many different ways to communicate confidence. Projecting confidence is probably not as difficult as you imagine it to be. Overcoming low confidence or self-esteem is usually just a case of acting as if you’re confident and outgoing – your mind will then respond in sync with your positive body language.

10. Use humor

Humour is a very useful tool for defusing tense situations and breaking the ice. It can also be used to make more colourful what otherwise might be quite a dull exchange.

Knowing when to draw the line is important, however. Light-hearted anecdotes during a group presentation can help to engage the audience, relentless puns during a client meeting can be exhausting and inappropriate.

Bringing it all together…

Without a sound understanding of how to communicate properly I don’t think I would have progressed as far in my career as I have. From passing your initial job interview through to delivering your yearly financial report to the business, knowing how to communicate well is absolutely crucial to your career success.

Start to make incremental adjustments and improvements to all of your daily exchanges and conversations; I’m sure you’ll soon reap the rewards.

Marc Burrage
About the author: 

Marc Burrage is Managing Director for Hays, Plc in Tokyo, Japan.  Hays is a leading global recruitment firm, placing 63,000 people in permanent jobs and 200,000 people in temporary roles last year.  Marc’s executive credentials include National Practice Leader and Executive General Manager assignments with both Hays and Hudson, in addition to positions with Volkswagen in the UK.  Follow him on LinkedIn.