When traveling, I usually find myself depending on those around me who know languages other than English fluently. At the same time, I do my best to at least learn a few common phrases in those other languages, like “Which way to the bathroom?” and “Do you think we should try IEM at my church?” Ultimately, though, I’m out of my element.
As important as it is to try to have a common language with your team, no one is fluent in all languages.
But I do have three years of high school Spanish! If I meet a native French or Italian or Shona speaker who also took three years of high school Spanish, we can have a conversation. While neither of us may be 100 percent fluent, it's fun to dust off those lessons and try to build that sort of connection.
Common language is so important to basic communication.
When building a team, having a common language can make or break you. Everything from training, to problem solving, to team growth lives or dies on your ability to connect with your volunteers.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in how they express themselves, but thinking everyone on your crew communicates the same can be frustrating for all.
Responsibility for communication falls to the leader, and often requires getting out of your comfort zone. We must attempt to speak in a language that they understand, even on a high school level Spanish level. We want to reach everyone, without any "language barriers."
There's No Point Talking When No One Listens
Starting with a purely technical idea of communication: Everyone has a way they like to hear from the world, be it phone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings or carrier pigeons. Some people use everything, some people only a few. But if you pick a method your team just doesn't get, you might as well just fax it directly to their trash can.
A few years ago, our crew did all scheduling by email, but it never really stuck. Even committed volunteers missed the emails. To figure out why, a short survey was sent out at Crossroads Community Church asking people to rank how they liked to get information. What we learned is email was the worst possible way to reach this team. But the survey also revealed everyone was on Facebook. We immediately swapped off email and set up a Facebook group. Communication improved overnight.
If You Can't Understand It, You Probably Can't Speak It
An absolute must read for leaders is "The Five Love Languages," by Gary Chapman. There's quite a bit written on this concept, so just to touch on it quickly, Chapman says there are five ways to communicate love "Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch." He goes on to assert that everyone has a love language they prefer, and if you can figure out which a person prefers by watching and talking with them, you can build deeper connection with better communication.
But as important as it is to try to have a common language with your team, no one is fluent in all languages. Practically speaking, my church held up the handwritten thank you note as the single most important form of appreciation for a great effort for several years. It was considered to be a way to show that I as a leader took time away from everything else, and personally wrote a message away from my computer.
But I just didn't get it. I don't value cards. I always pitch any card in the trash as soon as the giver turns their head a moment. It's not that I don't appreciate it, I definitely do. I don't understand, though, what to do with a card. It's a language I don't speak well.
Perhaps as a result, I always found it difficult to write these notes. It was a thing I'd just put off and would forget to do. But the worst part was, since this was the appreciation system, I just wasn't showing any appreciation for great effort at all, beyond a thank you.
As a result, I changed the system for my team. We created three major moments to recognize individuals and tried to diversify the love languages used. First, every year around Thanksgiving, I send a personal text to all team members to thank them. For some reason, if I can type it, it gets done. My other rules for these messages are they must never use boiler plate and must be embarrassingly honest. The message is just for that one person and I have to recognize something about either their contribution or our relationship. It affirms I see what they are doing.
Second, we hold a team awards ceremony. This gives us a way to publicly appreciate everyone. We recognize everyone's years of service. We give out T-shirts and awards like "Most Improved" or "Volunteer of the Year," and speak lovingly of each other, as we celebrate our achievements.
Finally, in the winter, we have a church-wide volunteer banquet. While it has several of the elements of our award ceremony, one key difference is that all the pastors and staff work the event with very few, if any, volunteers. On this one night, we want to be sure we serve the team.
This approach plays much better to my strengths, and as a result, I'm much more easily able to work tirelessly at them. I want volunteers to know, beyond a doubt, how much they mean to both me personally and the mission of the church. There is very little more important I do. But if I can pick a method that energizes me while I work on it, I think they benefit as well.
Stop Talking and Listen
Finally, if you really want to connect, it's not necessarily what you give, but what you receive. When I started this role, I was unobservant of volunteers trying to make a connection. If you listen, people are pretty good at telling you what they need. Keep in mind, it might not be what you would want for yourself.
Some people really hear me when I say thank you. But others feel appreciated after talking about movies for an hour. Other people feel connected when I take a bigger interest in their training. Others feel appreciated when I give them more responsibility or come in to work with me on a weekend.
That last one took me a while to understand. "I was planning on doing this unpleasant task myself, but you want to give up your Saturday to help? Why?"
Only once I saw this in my team, I saw it in myself. We want to be accepted and allowed to give it our all for the Lord. Leave it all on the field and know at the end of the day we did all we could.
It was a humbling experience to let people into those parts of the job. It took a moment of being quiet and listening to their goals to see how much they want to serve like Jesus served, constantly and happily.
Throughout history, common language is often the path to common ground. Find out how to reach your team, and when you do, find out how to show them you care. Finally, take the time to let them connect with you.