I recently had a sad conversation with a daughter who’s having difficulty communicating with her old-school dad. When I was in college, we called it a generation gap and I think that’s still a good description. But that scenario gave me food for thought: when we have difficulty communicating with somebody is it because they don’t understand our words?  Are we busy interpreting when we should simply be translating?

Are you a translator or an interpreter?

Don’t bother Googling the definition of “translator” and “interpreter.”  I just did and, according to Google, they’re synonymous.  I respectfully disagree.  In my opinion, Mediators are translators.  We (attempt to) translate the communication from one party in conflict to another.  If, instead, we become interpreters, we run the risk of getting it wrong.  It’s like reading a text or email without actually hearing the tone of the sender.   Is the sender being heartfelt or sarcastic?  Who really knows the sincerity behind the words?

When people in a relationship are having difficulty communicating with each other, how often do they get it wrong?  “You never listen!”  “You always interrupt!”  I’ve heard those two statements hundreds of times.  If you’re in the middle of a heated discussion, it can sometimes be hard to break an old habit.  So now, while you’re calmly reading this, I’m going to tell you what to do to become a translator.  You don’t have to go to school, or listen to a million language immersion CDs.  Being a translator in a difficult conversation is actually very simple.  All you need to do is repeat back what you just heard.

What?  That’s it?  To illustrate, let’s revisit the daughter-father scenario mentioned above.

Father:  “You’re lazy, and I’m tired of supporting you.”

Daughter (as interpreter):  “Fine.  I don’t need your damn charity.”

Daughter (as translator):  “You think I’m lazy and that I’m financially dependent on you?”

Father (after being actually heard):  “Well, I know you’ve been sending out a ton of resumes.”

Daughter (after feeling less defensive):  “It’s just so frustrating.  All I want is a foot in the door.”

See where I’m going with this?

In the heat of conflict, we all want to be heard.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes to get off of the stance we’ve taken so that we’re able to be more solution-oriented instead of fixating on the blame.  And yet, it’s complicated to offer a solution to someone who’s not able to receive it because of the underlying emotions.  Once the daughter heard some validation from her father, some understanding of what she’d been going through, her anger lifted.  If this conversation was occurring in my office, I would have asked a follow-up question to the father:  “Do you have any ideas about what she can do to get a face-to-face interview?”  The follow-up question then becomes productive and solution-oriented.

Translating the messages in a heated conversation takes practice.  If you need some help, let me know.