My grandmother was a Hungarian refugee, coming to Australia in the 1950’s. She learnt the English language assiduously; it was important for her to not only be understood, but to understand this new culture. These days she lives in an aged-care home run by the local Hungarian community. When people there speak to her in Hungarian, she gets upset and tells them to speak English!
I love that commitment, but I also know how hard it was for my grandmother. Asking people to repeat what they said, wondering if she missed the point, catching the wrong train. It is a commitment shared by millions of people who have come to live and work in Australia, one of the most multi-cultural places on the planet.
When I was learning to facilitate, an unconscious crutch I used was infusing my narrative with big words. Words like discombobulate; based on the theory if you can’t convince them with science then dazzle them with magic. I would read a book, notice the big words, google them and then understand. Then I would throw them at people in a workshop because I was now so smart.
Unfortunately the problem with that coping mechanism was no-one knew what I was talking about. Unlike reading a book, there wasn’t time for anyone to google a word to see what it meant, and I wasn’t noticing the perplexed faces in front of me. Then a colleague sat in a workshop of mine to give facilitation feedback (a professional discipline in my team). After the session, my colleague gave me the home truths. “When you are a facilitator, you are a professional communicator. Nothing means more than allowing people to understand you and allowing yourself to understand them. Why don’t you just use simple words, Paul?”
Not just a lightbulb moment there, but permission to have it not be all about me. I realised too I had been carrying around that unnecessary pressure. It was one of those necessary steps from trainer to facilitator, brought about by honesty from a caring colleague who had been through that already.
Big words were off the menu. With vigour I started to play with how I said the words; speed it up, slow it down, synching with movement, pausing for effect. Choosing my words too; trade-talk, vernacular, acronyms or not? Playing with my voice to top it off; drawl, shout, whisper, sing. I was so relieved there were things I could still do in and around words, but this time to help the learning and engagement. I was getting in touch with my inner facilitator nerd.
The last two weeks, I helped run some virtual classroom sessions into Asia. Like any pilot, there was the odd awkward moment and confused pause; learning the lessons you can only learn by doing. In amongst it I could appreciate the careful listening occurring and the deliberate choice of words for as precise a response as possible to the question posed. The respect I felt for the learners was the same as for my grandmother’s journey.