Found in Translation

Posted 01.21.2011

China-state-visit One of the big stories in Washington this week was the state visit of Chinese President Hu to the White House.  Most of the early analysis and reporting suggests that, all things considered, the meetings between the Chinese and the Americans were worthwhile. There are probably a lot of leadership lessons to be gained from how the meetings and dinners were handled by the principals. Here’s a quick one that dawned on me as I was listening on my car radio to the joint press conference between President Obama and President Hu.

What if we had to wait on a translator to repeat what we had just said in every meeting or conversation we’re in? 

Here’s the scenario that got me thinking about that question. Obama went first with his opening statement. He would deliver about a paragraph’s worth of remarks and then pause for a translator to repeat what he’d said in Mandarin. It was interesting to listen to how the translation routine changed the normal rhythm of Obama’s speech. When he’d  start talking again after the translator finished,  it was like you could almost hear him slow down to think about what he wanted to say next.  I’m sure he was speaking from prepared remarks but the quality of the delivery had a different impact because of the enforced breaks in the speaking. (Hu went through his entire speech before the translation was provided, but that’s another story.)

So, what if we had to wait on a translator to repeat what we had just said in every meeting or conversation we’re in? Sure, the conversation might take longer but perhaps the time everyone had to think while the translator spoke would improve the quality of thinking and the words that follow the thinking. 

The urge to jump in to speak, to give the answer, to cut to the chase is a common challenge for executive and management leaders. You usually have to be reasonably intelligent to get a job like that and smart people often get to the “answer” quickly and can’t wait to get it out there. Conversation shuts down as a result and, as I wrote earlier this week, decision quality suffers.

Do you have the challenge of slowing down long enough to really think about what you’re saying and giving others space to think? Why not pretend you have to wait on the translator to share your remarks before you move on to the next point?  What do you think you’d find in translation?