Communication for beginners

Have I learned nothing in all the time I’ve been here?!, I wonder sometimes.

The past week I’ve been in long meetings with an experienced Belgian colleague who’s in the country for a week. With our Tanzanian colleagues we’re working on the “exit strategy” of an education project – trying to pave the way for continuation of what worked well and ensure that what’s been invested isn’t lost as soon as our funding ends next year.

So I arrive with my laptop, ready to note down action points and to-do lists and questions to be ticked off. And then struggle against the rising irritation in my lungs as people we were scheduled to meet simply don’t turn up, or are late, or sit there yawning or answering their phones.

While I’m trying to catch up on other work, my Belgian colleague sits quietly, not looking at her watch, letting people talk and talk about something we already know or something off-subject. When we try to agree on something and the Tanzanian colleagues look confused (or as happened today, get flustered and simply leave the room), she goes back to the beginning. The Tanzanian partners are in charge, of course – the whole point of development “cooperation” as aid is now called – and so every exercise has to be one in guiding them towards doing the work, even if you know you can do it much faster yourself.

It’s not just differences in education level that makes working together difficult. It’s language too: Tanzanians are almost never as comfortable with English as they are in Kiswahili, even though all this work is done through English. But it’s cultural as well. They just don’t do direct questions without all the stuff that goes around it. And maybe that informality is the key. “Letting them just talk means you actually find out a lot of information”, says my Belgian colleague. “With our western way of questioning, you might miss something you hadn’t thought to ask”.

I’m taking mental notes: long greetings, small talk, minimum questions and more open-ended statements, building up a relationship before trying to get something from people. Maybe less e-mails and more phone calls too; and maybe when colleagues come in to my office and just sit down in front of me without anything in particular to say, as is usual, I should actually stop what I am doing and let them talk a while.

But I’m not sure this approach is going to work for the 200-person event we’re supposed to be organising in 2 months’ time…

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