I went to high school in Mexico City and learned passable Spanish. Twenty years later, I found myself in the large ballroom of a hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, co-leading a nine-month international coach training program.
Since high school, I’d practiced very little, so my Spanish was rusty. Just before leading my session of the training program to 150 coaching students, I went into a mild panic. I’d been brushing up on my Spanish for several weeks, but I knew I’d still be speaking very broken Spanish and making tons of mistakes.
At lunch before my session, I was sitting alone at a table, “cramming,” looking up words, re-translating my talk.
Seeing me tensely hunched over my notes, Rafael, the leader of the program, my mentor, recent business partner, and an extraordinary listener and thinker, came over and asked me how I was doing. I told him that I didn’t see how I could avoid confusing everyone and jeopardizing the entire training program by trying to teach in Spanish.
Rafael sat down and asked me, “What happens to you when you listen to non-native English speakers?”
I sat back in my chair and thought about it. “I have to focus more to understand their intent.”
“Me too,” said Rafael. “And I tend to appreciate them more because they’re making the extra effort to communicate in a non-native language. That’s what these people will feel, too. Your broken Spanish is a good thing, Grayson,” he continued. “Because all these people will be listening much more carefully to you than they ever do to me when I’m up there speaking fluently in Spanish.”
Rafael’s insight allowed me to see my situation differently. My previous assumption that my broken Spanish was a liability transformed into a belief that it was an asset.
I felt the tension drain from my body. When I took the stage, I began by apologizing to the students for the torture my broken Spanish might inflict on them. And I asked them to please listen as carefully as they could—because my words might not always be clear. The session went great.
Rafael had been right—my perceived liability was an asset.
But the bigger lesson for me was this: That problems don’t exist “out there,” independent of the person who declares them to be problems. My “problem” was only a problem because of the way I was thinking. When my thinking changed, the problem did too.
Every day, in every team and organization, leaders declare problems and work hard to solve them. But many of these problems won’t actually be solved. They’ll resurface later on, somewhere else, because the “solutions” were invented with the same set of assumptions in which the problems were invented.
The key to addressing these problems requires a shift in our thinking—just like Rafael helped me make in Caracas.