Communication Challenges: Our Major Takeways

Communication on teams can be tricky enough when you’re with coworkers or fellow students here in Seattle. But add in cultural and language barriers and suddenly you find yourself on a steep learning curve.  As we, the SEWA Manager Ni School, got settled in Ahmedabad and in our SEWA office, it started to become clear that our initial expectations of project communication needed to shift and thus we would like to share some of our observations to help future groups better communicate with their SEWA Clients.  

  1. Direct the meetings: Before we left, it was easy to assume in our excitement that we would have ample opportunity to meet with the SEWA Manager Ni School (SMS) team members and that information would be available in a snap. However, the women at SMS are working very hard to create and facilitate training programs for women throughout Asia and are constantly being pulled in different directions. After our initial meeting, we quickly learned that scheduling future meetings was a must; we could not assume that someone would be immediately available when a question arose. Furthermore, it was helpful to prepare a thorough meeting agenda beforehand with questions and desired outcomes to maximize our meeting time.  We needed to be much more direct in our communication style and say exactly what was needed and when. Once we realized that we were the ones driving the meetings, we were able to adapt our communication style to reach out desired outcomes.
  2. Clarify terminology: One of our earliest realizations came when our SMS Managers were asking us for a break-even model to use when assessing various activities in which the Community Centers could engage. From our business background, we assumed they wanted us to develop a model which would show when the costs and expenses were equal – where the total revenue and total costs curves would meet. We also assumed that from this, they would want to anticipate the profit they could make from their pursuit of an activity. Upon inquiry, we discovered that they weren’t interested in making a profit; they wanted to operate debt-free, a completely different objective. Their use of the word “Sustainable” was also misleading coming from our background: we assumed that by sustainability, they wanted to become self-sustaining. However, that was not their goal: they wanted to look for continuous sources of income to cover their programs, whether through private or government grants. Again, this changed our objectives. We learned that it was important to clarify terminology to better address their objectives and understand their needs.
  3. Ask. Ask again. Ask some more; ask different people; ask in different ways: Before we left, we were told about the graciousness of the Indian culture and how it can be difficult for some to say no when asked a question or favor. Throughout our time in Ahmedabad we experienced both of these traits. First, each day the SMS team was incredibly generous in hosting us for lunch around the table, a daily tradition. All of the women were so proud of SMS and eager to share the results of their work and dedication. We loved hearing about the success stories of the Centers but were also curious about the programs that weren’t working as well as expected. As we asked more detailed questions about the Visavadi CBLRC, the responses would occasionally be brief but said with a positive head nod. To get the real picture – or rather a more complete picture – we learned not to push the question further right away but instead return to the subject during a later conversation, sometimes with a different person. Often, this would give us the information we needed. We tried to find the balance between understanding different communication styles while also getting the information we needed. Being aware of these differences but also working to find common ground helped to build our relationship with the SMS team.

We’ve all heard the adage “communication is key to any relationship”, and this is true no matter which continent you’re on. While communication proved to be challenging, it also served as a great learning experience.


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