LinkedIn - August 2020
Organizations at every level of success and size are struggling to ensure their remote teams are functioning effectively. Smarter With Gartner suggests common sense practices drawn from the pre-pandemic workplace including building trust, being transparent and accessible, and creating team profiles. Savvy leaders are also encouraged to make remote meetings shorter, accommodate for distractions, meet in smaller groups and acknowledge cultural differences.
Often omitted from these considerations are the challenges in remote meetings for non-native English speakers – productive, engaged knowledge workers who want to participate but are limited by their language and communication skills in English. Even with a reasonable-to-good command of English, these valued team members often struggle to jump into the flow of rapid, dynamic, less predictable communication. As meetings progress, communication in a second or third language is draining – as any speaker of another language knows. Important nuance gets lost. Discussions move on and meaningful contributions are left by the wayside. Sound familiar?
Think of communication in meetings like driving on a highway. The flow is easier when everyone stays in their lane – like a tightly controlled meeting. The difficult but unavoidable parts of highway driving (or, the communication highway for non-native English speakers) are getting onto the highway in traffic from the ramp (i.e., interrupting rapid-flow conversations to add ideas or opinions), changing lanes quickly (i.e., jumping from one topic to another) and – most importantly – responding to unexpected moves of other drivers (i.e., conversation tangents, Q&A, feedback, unfamiliar small talk topics).
Providing Roadside Support
So, what will help non-native English speakers engage more freely in remote meetings on the dynamic communication highway? Here are four simple ideas for meeting leaders:
- Ask team members to take 10 minutes to identify, together, a few phrases and strategies everyone on the team will use to jump into discussions. This could be fun! In the process, the team can confirm the expectation that interrupting to share information is a responsibility of one’s job – and will not be considered rude among the team.
- When discussions veer onto new topics and leaders sense that not everyone is tracking the flow, leaders should pause the discussion to summarize talking points and restate the path to this moment. In this way, those not tracking will not be embarrassed or lose face.
- Set aside 10 minutes with non-native speakers to preview short presentations before a virtual scrum or other meeting. Remind speakers to emphasize key points, stress critical language and speak slowly. Identify possible questions and rehearse short answers. This will save time later by reducing misunderstandings.
- Build a list of words that team members struggle to pronounce correctly - often multisyllable or technical words. Record correct pronunciations on a phone. When speakers say these critical words correctly, everyone listens more accurately and the non-native speaker gains confidence. A senior engineer in a data storage company whom I worked with could not say ‘yield’, which he used often. It sounded like ‘eel’ or ‘ear’. When he got it, he was relieved and then eager to talk about improving the yield rate!
These simple practices can help non-native speakers function more effectively on the now ubiquitous communication highway of remote meetings, and at the same time improve management and camaraderie on global teams.
David Kertzner founded ProActive English – www.proactive-english.com - in 1997 to meet a pressing and continuing need in businesses beginning in the dot-com era: well-educated, non-native English-speaking professionals with significant roles struggling to function effectively in fast-paced environments due to language and communication skills and line workers in manufacturing facilities needing similar help as smart industries evolve. ProActive English has delivered training solutions to some of the world’s most successful companies at locations in the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. www.linkedin.com/in/dkertzner/
For expert support in optimizing communication in your culturally diverse team, contact ProActive English for a complimentary consultation.