When I was a child, one of my favourite Bible stories was about the Tower of Babel.
The story got a bit embellished, of course. (I discover now, thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, that my Sunday School teacher had mixed in a bit of Josephus and other texts too. How apt.)
But basically, the story in Genesis told of a race of men determined to build a tower to reach God. But God, not really wanting to be reached, caused them to all speak different languages, and suddenly they couldn’t communicate anymore and their glorious edifice failed.
As an origin myth to explain why people speak different languages, it’s simple and memorable.
And my early fascination with the story must have fed my instinctive passion for construction and for clear communication. It informs my work even now.
Because it’s both amazing and awful to see how, in construction industry collaborations today and in the many initiatives I’ve been involved with throughout my career that rely on effective cooperation between different organisations, the thing that still seems to scupper progress fastest is the failure to agree a common language.
The confusion of tongues is still the undoing of us.
The lack of a common lexicon leads to misunderstanding, frustration and high emotion. Anxiety leads to adrenaline surges and the brain’s most basic neurons kicking off, and that in turn instantly prevents us from being able to listen clearly or to use our problem-solving skills.
Meetings go round in circles.
Decisions don’t stick.
Nothing we are trying to build can ever reach the heights in that state of stress.
Of course, there is a different view. Anyone familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will remember that Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish was a translation device which, in effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races “caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
So if your collaboration initiative isn’t going too well, I’d still suggest you look again at the words your different groups are using.
In our facilitation work at LMC, often one of the very first things we do is to agree and write up our glossary of terms. My experience is that just that simple exercise makes everyone feel safe, better understood and better able to express their views.
It fosters greater trust.
It may even help us build something wonderful.