Communication is not only an important skill we have to develop, but it's also vital to improve other soft skills such as assertiveness, empathy, and teamwork.
We are constantly thinking about what do we need to communicate and how to do it. To do so, we have to get a wider understanding of the context, we need to listen to others. There's no communication without analysis and active listening, it is a two-way path.
Communication is extremely related to some fears volunteers have when volunteering abroad: How can I communicate in a different language? Can I break the language barrier?
Before starting with the project we have an introductory talk where we talk about volunteer's doubts, expectations, and fears. In this scenario, we remind volunteers of a few things about communication:
First, you are not alone: communication is to bond with others, so it's important to think about it in a collectivist perspective. People at the projects are used to work with volunteers, and despite being Spanish speakers they have developed communication and active listening skills like no other.
Second, we have to stop thinking about communication and listening verbally: sometimes body language is more effective, it's just that we are not used to it. A great example of this is how we relate with children that haven't develop language yet.
Third, we have to take the initiative and be creative, there are so many ways we can bond with people and so many tools we can use. For example, showing pictures of your country, your home, and traditional food can be really enriching. You can also play some music or use some translation tools if there is something more complex you want to communicate right away.
Finally, we encourage volunteers to learn about the country and the community where you are volunteering, which will help you to understand some habits and traditions.
As an organization, we are always willing to help volunteers with these problems and we are available to figure out ways of solving them together. Communication and active listening require lots of patience and determination, and volunteering can definitely help you develop these skills.
Here are some thoughts from former volunteers:
“When I first came here and it was a lot of Spanish at first and like I said I’m not fluent in the language. So the language barrier was really tough and just being in a new environment I felt like a fish out of water, but as I started to talk to the ladies in the kitchen and get into a routine I felt a bit more comfortable. I would say defiantly getting out of your comfort zone is important and I guess I’ve really seen how collectivist it is, coming from the US it’s a really individualist culture and here it’s very collectivist so it doesn’t really matter who you are and what you do in the kitchen or even if you make mistakes just as long as your helping, were all working towards the same goal. There was a lot of times where I was really self conscious about things and then I realized it didn’t really matter and they didn’t care so I would say I’ve seen how collectivist it is and I will take more of that behavior with me back. All the workers always give me a kiss and always greet me and some of the people who have done that I’ve never even actually spoken to. I guess I would just reinforce that no matter who you are you’re always welcome here.”
“Voluntario Global enables its comms volunteers to meet so many new people on all of the different projects and with that comes situations where you’ll find yourselves in conversations, piecing together your broken spanish and trying to communicate with someone who knows no English. You’ll be throwing yourself in at the deep end, but it’s undoubtedly the best way to learn.”
- Eleanor Confrey, Communications volunteer