Wanted: Intepreters

The initial connection between we three authors was our assignment to the On-Site Inspection Agency (now an activity under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency) as Russian interpreters. As a fellow author previously noted, we worked during interesting times which allowed us to have a direct influence on the implementation of national security strategy between Russia and our great nation. The role of the interpreter was key for obvious reasons. Diplomacy clearly requires communication and clear understanding of the intent behind the communication. That’s the real challenge of interpretation—putting words from one language into another is a simple math equation. That’s why translation apps have finally been able to mature to the point that tourists can often get information in any language by using their phone like a deaf person uses a white board. But they can’t determine the intent so they’re still limited in their use.

Now here’s the point of the post today: Interpretation is something we all use and need on nearly a daily basis. Despite the fact that the majority of people I know speak English as their native tongue, I’m not surprised that our Commonwealth counterparts (UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are described as five nations separated by a common language. That concept can be applied to our personal relationships as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said one thing and the person I’m speaking to has taken it a different way than I intended. As I gain experience (get older), I make fewer of these communications gaffes, but they are not completely avoidable. As a supervisor and mentor, I try to work on this with folks and many of them simply don’t grasp the concept. The people who have the greatest challenge with this concept are those who wear their principles and emotions on their sleeves always speaking the truth as they know it. The challenge with that is the truth can hurt sometimes and direct language can often lead to indirect impacts that result in longer, more emotional, sometimes relationship-damaging results. I have one particular person in mind who does this frequently. His heart is always in the right place and his actions stem from the behavior and values his parents cultivated in him decades ago, but his method is hurting his message and our mission.

I’m not saying we should lie in order to keep everyone happy, but I am saying we need to think about how things are going to be received and interpret them in a way that still gets across the message without causing a diplomatic (relationship) faux pas that jeopardizes the goal we started with before opening our mouths. Be self-aware, especially about your communication style. Try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself “What did you say?” and “How will this person interpret it?”  Below is a list of relationships where I think this approach is sound if you value these people and the role they play in your life. The communication works both ways in these relationships so please don’t take this list as unidirectional.

Parent and child

Parent and teenager

Parent and other parent

Parent and adult parent

Spouse and spouse

Girlfriend and boyfriend

Supervisor to subordinate

Peer to peer

Subject matter expert to dilettante

HR staff to every other employee

Friend to spouse

Friend to friend

Friend to enemy

Stranger to stranger

And the list goes on…

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