How Experimenting in a Foreign Language Taught Me Intelligent Risk-Taking

It was a tense moment there in the cheese shop.

I had just attempted an offhand joking remark – in French – and was waiting to see how the shopkeeper would react.

I was in Paris for a few days before visiting my daughter who’s studying abroad this semester.  My French is theoretically pretty good.  I say theoretically because when you are speaking in a foreign language, there can be a pretty large gap between what you know and what you are willing to put out into the world.  

In the past, I’d tend to play it safe.  I’d use just enough words to get by and count on my smile to navigate the rest. 

This trip, I intentionally tried something different. 

When we went into a shop or restaurant, I’d always say more than the minimum required.  For example, buying the cheese that day, when I couldn’t tell if the price quoted was 5 euros or 50, I made a joke – something like “I thought you said 50 euros.  That’s some pretty expensive cheese.” 

I chatted with the waiter, the flight attendant, and the woman who ran for the bus alongside me.  Sure I made mistakes, faltered when I couldn’t find the word.  But it was delightful when the shop owner and others responded in kind, and it changed the entire tone of the trip.  

I was crossing the gap between certainty, a skill level I was comfortable with, into behavior that was more risky. 

And all of a sudden I realized: this is what I do in my coaching.  

I coach leaders who are at the edge of what’s comfortable and what’s uncomfortable for them.

With my clients, there’s always a gap between where they are and where they want to to be.  Bridging that gap can be uncomfortable.  We work together on small, experimental changes and observe the outcomes, because I’ve learned that little changes in behavior add up to a bigger transformation over time.  

The experiments could be:

-One weekend day without checking work email.

-Speaking up more – or speaking less and letting your directs lead the conversation.

-Taking a few deep breaths before going into a meeting.

What I love about this approach is that you can do it anywhere and anytime: at work or at home; whether you are in your ideal job or between jobs. 

And everyone’s risk-taking work is different.  Some people (not me!) have no problem ad libbing in a language they don’t know well.  For others making an impromptu comment in a high-level meeting is a cause for celebration.

It all starts with an intention, even just a wish:  

by this I mean a phrase that might be in your head “I wish I could…”  And then the steps are:

  • Ask: what would it look like if I’m behaving in the new way?
  • What’s a small action I can take?
  • Try it and notice what happens.

By the way, the 5 euro cheese was delicious.

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