Speaking different languages – A Changemakers approach to being understood

Leading transformation always sounds like a great opportunity, shaping the future of an organisation in your own hands. It is shifting of the culture, assumptions, and purpose towards a bright future through a radical change that orientates us to a new direction.

It sounds great until you get to that leadership meeting. There you are talking through the strategic transformation plan when you suddenly realise that you are speaking a completely different language to the rest of the room. As you look around, you notice half the meeting are checking emails, and another is looking out of the window. Then, your worst nightmare happens. A senior member of the meeting utters those terrible words.

“Are we going to be much longer, because I have an important meeting to go to”? Ouch! I’m dead! It's over!

At this point, you know that the group have lost interest and the delivery of your transformation strategy will be like pushing water uphill. The chance of it disseminating through the organisation is also nil because the people sitting in your meeting are not going to do it. They do not align with your strategy and so they are not going to talk about it to anyone else.

The issue is that although we all share a common language, we do not share a common understanding of the words we use. In transformation terms, one person’s blue-sky thinking is another person’s incremental change. This leads to the very opposite of a meeting of minds. It is more like ships passing in the night.

Over the last 12 months, along with my colleagues at iESE, I have been running workshops with local authorities discussing the diversity of language and the need to work with difference. The result is that the key is not to make difference all the same but to accept it and understand how it is. Changemakers often misunderstand alignment in this way and try to create a homogeneous language, which rarely works. It is not about agreeing what words mean but rather understanding each other’s different interpretations. During the workshops, we noticed how interested the workshop groups became in their differences and what rich conversations developed from them. Many of the participants agreed that these conversations were valuable but occurred too infrequently.

Our key takeaway from our workshops was this: When leaders understand and value difference, they get alignment, engagement, and a very human level of appreciation towards other points of view. From there, leaders and changemakers can start to put the blocks of transformation together knowing they will be supported.

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