Globalization creates tremendous opportunities for international business, along with the need to communicate with multicultural professionals. While diversity of thought and culture significantly contribute to innovation and productivity, there are often communication gaps that negatively impact business, and business relationships, even when diversity is apparent, acknowledged, and respected.
Being fluent, or near-fluent, in spoken English does not preclude having comprehension difficulties or language processing delays. This is especially apparent in meetings where there are many speakers, diverse cultures and oft times, cross-conversation. Some struggle to comprehend the details and vocabulary; others miss the big picture; and many have shared that they feel awkward, like an outsider, because of their inability to understand humor, sarcasm or references to historical and cultural icons.
At meetings, multicultural employees may remain silent. They might avoid asking for needed clarification rather than risk appearing “stupid.” Some hesitate to express their opinions, fearing they won’t be understood because of their imperfect grammar or pronunciation. Because it can be frustrating and embarrassing to repeat oneself and not be understood, employees may leave a meeting confused, and wait for an opportunity to ask a colleague for details they missed. This, of course, can be true for any employee, not only the multilingual professional.
Cultural values add a layer of complexity to communication performance and the exchange of information. For example, in some cultures, asking a senior executive to repeat him/herself can be seen as disrespectful; and expressing a difference of opinion may be perceived as negative and egocentric rather than valued for confidence and assertiveness.
Language and cultural mastery take time. However, there are some strategies that can help. The following are interventions to strengthen communication in a multicultural environment.
For Speakers Whose First Language is not English:
1. Use your voice fully. Being heard precedes being understood. It’s better to mispronounce than not to speak at all. American business culture respects verbal participation. Speaking up audibly is essential. (Do not assume your accent is the cause of not being understood. It may very well be that you are talking quietly and can’t be heard!)
2. Maximize eye contact to anchor listener attention. Eye contact is felt as much as it is seen. When your eyes and words are aligned, you have a greater chance to influence your listeners. Eye contact in the American culture communicates self-confidence. Even at remote meetings, communicate as if you were seeing the person face to face. Having a photograph of your listener nearby can be helpful.
3. Listen without interruption and then clarify what you heard. Being sure you understand what was said is a skill for communicators of any background. Do not assume you understand a speaker unless you feed back their message and receive confirmation you understood correctly. Many times, your feedback prompts the speaker to add details that further clarify for you and others. And remember… if you say nothing, there’s no indication you understood fully, partially or not at all. Again, verbal participation is a value in American business.
4. Collect to Correct! Begin a Business English Language notebook. Jot down questions, unfamiliar vocabulary, pronunciations, idiomatic expressions and grammatical subtleties that challenge your understanding. Ask a colleague to assist you. Five minutes, once a week, can catapult your linguistic I.Q. and most colleagues are more than willing to provide this support. Additionally, investigate internal coaching and training opportunities within your company.
For American-born Listeners with English as Their Only Language:
1. Listen fully. Avoid judging the speaker’s pronunciation or your ability to understand speech differences. Make it your intention to give 100% listening attention. When listening to accented speech over the telephone, try closing your eyes. For many, this “listening without looking” supports and strengthens listening acumen.
2. When asking a speaker to repeat, own part of the problem. Communication is a two-way process. All listeners do not have the same difficulty listening to accents. Better to say, I didn’t understand you, Could you repeat that for me please? than What? Say that again, Speak clearly, Speak up, Speak slowly, etc.
3. Use alternative communication methods to gain understanding. If you’ve asked a speaker to repeat him/herself more than twice and you still don’t understand, try other communication methods: writing, drawing, spelling, pointing. Remember… communication is the ultimate goal and is far more important than “perfect” grammar, accent or vocabulary.
4. Model excellence in communication and presentation. Do not interrupt, monopolize, gossip, “wing-it,” “side-bar”, answer e mails or half-listen during meetings . Set a strong communication example! Facilitate sharing, listen longer, manage conflict, speak authentically and respectfully and balance the speaking/listening dynamic.