What Do You Mean?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a Belieber.

I’m not ashamed to admit I love Justin Bieber’s album Purpose and that the lyrics of the song “What do you mean?” resonate with me and my work as an interculturalist:

What do you mean?
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?

People often don’t say what they mean. They get twisted and turned up in their thoughts, worry about how they might come across, or concerned they’ll hurt another’s feelings. While I advocate for politeness and diplomacy in communication, particularly when communicating across cultures, I also think we need to get our message across more directly. Actually, to be more direct, let me rephrase—I think we need to start saying exactly what we mean.

But how can we do this without offending others and hurting our reputations?

There are ways. Here are three:

Think before you speak. Often we get into conversations where we start speaking and it all comes out wrong, especially in emotional situations. In order to ensure you’re concise and clear, think about what you want to say before you say it. Map it out, divide it into three main points and provide a roadmap for your speaking partner. Remember it’s always okay to pause and take some time to collect your thoughts before words come out. Bide yourself some time by using phrases such as “let me think about that for a minute” or “that’s a good question/idea, I’d like to give it some thought.”

Express feelings, not logic. Dig deep and access your true feelings. Avoid getting too “heady” and instead articulate your emotions. For example, if you feel someone is being disrespectful to you, try saying, “It’s confusing and hurtful when you do X and I’d like to talk about it.” As opposed to telling them, “I don’t think you’re being respectful towards me.” Someone is more apt to hear you and empathize when they understand the impact of their actions on your feelings. Plus, statements about yourself are less likely to make someone feel like they’re being attacked and need to go on the defensive. So, you’re more likely to have a productive conversation. 

Tell the truth. This may sound obvious but we’re good at lying to ourselves and therefore others. Delusions don’t help anyone and certainly don’t build trust between you and personal or professional partners. Show commitment to those you live and work with by honestly naming problems and issues—and then suggesting that you work together to confront them head on.

Better make up your mind. What do you mean?

That’s how Justin’s song ends—sort of with an ultimatum. So, in the spirit of his song, I want to give you a challenge. I challenge you to start saying what you mean. Today. You may find it liberating to put your truth out there and not have to worry that people walked away thinking “what do you mean?”

Start saying what you mean! You may find it liberating to put your truth out there! {TWEET THIS}

Image Credit: Fotolia neirfy (modified)

Getting Comfortable with Being Controversial

Handling Controversy

“This is the worst advice ever!”

“You could not be more correct.”

“As a woman in a dominantly male environment I very much agree.”

“This article is a joke.”

In case you didn’t catch it, responses to my last post on the qualities of successful female leaders were quite polarized. It was certainly more provocative than what I usually write about. Being an interculturalist, I’ve been trained as a relativist where it’s important to recognize multiple perspectives and understand that they can all be true and right—it depends on the culture, the context, or the country where someone is coming from. It’s true that communication style, attitude, or perception may be normal for one person, may not be for others. How one person views something could be viewed the opposite way by someone else.

For me, being a relativist also means keeping harmony. I often use language that’s sensitive to the fact that there are other perspectives out there. I’ll say “my observation has been that” or “some people look at it this way” or “other perspectives are…”

Therefore, when I wrote last week’s article, I knew it would be a lightning rod. Women in business and the path of female leadership has historical (and current) pain. I picked the scab and it bled a little. But through the rich discussion on LinkedIn, I found it enlightening that there were so many reactions. I also reflected on how the controversy made me feel and how I handled the discomfort that came with it. Not natural for me as an interculturalist and relativist.

I’m not sorry that I shared these observations. I think it’s important to have an open conversation and learn how to handle discomfort, particularly as it relates to hot button topics like diversity.

So, upon reflection over the past week, here’s my advice on handling controversial topics—and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable.

  1. Share your observations more than your opinions. Describe what you see and experience. After all, your truth is as true as anyone else’s. If you talk about what you experienced or witness, rather than what you believe, it will hold more validity because it’s based on something that happened. It is your own experience.
  2. Be aware of your filters. But while it’s your own experience, you also have your own lens in which you experience that experience. We all have our own interpretations or filters. So know what yours are. For example, my last post was through the lens of a long-time successful female executive who has traveled to more than forty countries doing business with both female and male leaders all over the world. Other people may have different viewpoints, a different lens through which they look, and they’re just as valid as mine.
  3. Accept that you’re not going to make everyone comfortable all the time. If you’ve experienced something challenging that someone can learn from, share it widely—and be okay that other people may not be comfortable with it. In fact, embrace it and know that by getting people to think, challenge, and even criticize, you’re helping them form their own perspectives more strongly and thoughtfully. Critical thinking ensures that we’re optimizing solutions and having conversations that are more productive, both professionally and personally.

These three tips are how I approach discussing diversity related to race, culture, personality style, sexual orientation…the list goes on…I find that doing it this way instead of approaching hot button topics in a compliance or a “do’s and don’ts” way fosters more enriching conversations. We’re able to identify what we or our organizations need to do to be more open and tolerant, how a business can appeal to more markets or diverse customers and employees, or what a company needs to shift to be more inclusive. I believe having these open, honest, and compassionate conversations will get us to where we need to be to have further success operating in a global world.

Image Credit: Fotolia Feng Yu