Venture Stories

Translating Challenges Through Empathy

03/29/2024

Hear from a Moon Design Lead on how language plays a key role in managing projects, and the importance of creating spaces that take diverse languages into consideration.


Key Learnings

  • Be considerate of multiple languages used across a team. 
  • Diversity produces more powerful conversations and outcomes.
  • Connecting through language creates empathy amongst team members.

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I have never joined a project that departed from a specific business unit but had the aim to aggregate not only different departments but also a very complex system of stakeholders and project partners. But that changed with my recent experience with Agritech, a project that was born inside the Mobility Business team at Mitsui & Co.’s headquarters. When the project arrived at Moon through a workshop, it was already formed by professionals from Logistics, DX, Machinery, and Food Business Units. Not only that, but the team had members from Mitsui & Co. Japan and Mitsui & Co. São Paulo, Brazil. The project was born from a unique business opportunity to collaborate with a development team from a partner (a large Japanese electronics manufacturer) that had been developing solutions in global connectivity and smart sensing on a planetary scale. 

 

As Moon, our initial challenge was to facilitate conversations among such a diverse team, and also support possible paths where the technologies developed by the partner could be applied to generate business in Brazil – while also improving the quality of processes in areas where Mitsui & Co. is active in South America. 

 

Because Moon has its headquarters in Palo Alto, and a big part of our team and structure work on an English-speaking basis, English tends to become the main language used when we host workshops or work on projects with teams coming from different backgrounds. This is also common for Mitsui & Co. since the company is present in more than 60 countries globally. 

 

For me, this project was especially exciting, not only because I was familiar with the Brazilian context and would work with a product targeting the place where I lived for a big part of my life, but also because I was in the middle of a large group of professionals who could speak three languages I am fluent in Portuguese, English, and Japanese. In the beginning, I was excited thinking about how that would be advantageous to me since I was leading the project. However, what came after was the realization of how language plays a key role in efficiently managing projects, as well as generating successful business. But this realization also came with learning about how to create spaces, frameworks, and processes that consider that.

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It is important to remember that English is a useful, global lingua franca, but it also presents as a hegemonic power that can affect a professional’s confidence and work quality when we get lost in translation. The key learning I had was that the language barrier might cover up creativity. Many professionals who might have brilliant insights might step back, afraid of attempting to speak up in English which they might feel is insufficient. This was a common comment we received from professionals in Japan while running user interviews for GORIL, a language-learning app and former Moon venture that I also worked on. When people have to communicate in a language in which they aren’t fluent, defending their point of view or presenting a proposal might be negatively affected. In other words, the rhetoric might lack its full potential. Lastly, miscommunication also happens when people are listening. When information is being passed verbally in a language that one is not 100% fluent in, interpretation might be difficult, hence, reacting or responding to it might also be compromised.

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I could list a dozen more aspects of miscommunication issues. Still, instead, I want to bring up some key learning tactics to improve communication and efficiency when two or more languages are being used in a project work environment. 

1. The Ones Who Get It All
Make sure your team has an individual who can fluently deal with the languages involved in the project. This person can step in to clarify lost in translation moments and additionally might have cultural insights into each language, which can be helpful for conflict handling.

2. Plain Language
No matter if the language is English or another, if the other team members speak the language that is being used but is not 100% fluent, make sure to speak slowly and with seamless breaks between words – this is a classic podcast technique, by the way. Do not bring many expressions, figurative language, or highly complex vocabulary.

3. Read People's Reactions and Add Complements

Not just the facilitator, but also other team members should have the role of checking on everyone’s reactions and complementing conversations, statements, or questions that might sound too complex to be interpreted. They could even rephrase sentences for someone who could not fully communicate in the language being used, helping to close any gaps. Rephrasing is a great tool, and to be honest, sometimes it happens even if you do speak the same language. It is not always that we can be 100% clear using words. 

4. Allow Plurality
Create teams who can speak multiple languages. The more bilingual or trilingual members you have, the more powerful the conversations and outcomes will be. And if some of the members do not speak a certain language, support them in learning it, even if they don’t become fluent or use it in daily life. Connecting with the language of their colleagues or business partners is an important tool for increasing empathy. 

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In our project with Mitsui & Co., our partner, and many Brazilian stakeholders, we live within three languages. Of course, sometimes things become more complex, but what we try to avoid by all means is criticism and team members behaving with an air of superiority due to their language capabilities. But more important than anything, we make sure that all the information, coming from whichever of the three languages, is easily translated as context to all members so everyone can always be on the same page, at all times.

 

Machi Rezende, Design Lead

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