The future of work is not just about more remote work and virtual teams. The shift to remote work also means a greater ability and opportunity to work with people worldwide. The future of work is not only remote; it is also global. We will increasingly be collaborating with—and competing with—colleagues and partners from other countries. Getting better at working across cultures is a skill that we need to develop, and understanding how to interact with non-native English speakers is central to that. Yet, it is a skill that many of us are sorely lacking. Writing in the Financial Times a few years ago, Michael Skapinker noted that, “Of all the communication and public speaking skills, talking to non-native English speakers is one of the most under-appreciated. It does not come naturally to most English speakers, but, like all skills, it can be learnt.”
In a previous article, I shared some suggestions from Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Neeley on how native English speakers can step up and behave differently to support their non-native English speaking colleagues. To build on those great suggestions from Professor Neeley, here are some additional tips that have worked well for me. Anyone can put these into practice to create a more inclusive, welcoming work environment for non-native English speakers.
1) Listen Actively And Observe On Video Calls
Active listening is the conscious effort to ensure others understand by paraphrasing, listening carefully and looking for non-verbal cues like body language, indicating others are struggling to comprehend. It can be something as simple—but we often forget to do—as pausing to ask, “Am I being clear?” or “Does everyone understand me so far?” When giving a presentation or leading a meeting, we sometimes forget that communication is a two-way game. While the listeners have a role in understanding, we have a role in explaining and ensuring comprehension.
For remote teams, enhance your active listening by ensuring everyone has their camera turned on so you can observe body language on Zoom calls. Watch how people react to what you’re saying, and look for signs that they don’t understand or need you to repeat what you said. Make having cameras on a team norm and let people know about this in advance, so they know to prepare their work environment for this.
2) Use Simpler And Less Colloquial Phrases
Consider how you might typically say, “Does everyone understand me so far?” with native English speakers. You might generally say things like, “Is everyone on board?”, “Are you all following me?” or “Are we good?” There is a lot of cultural context in those phrases that a non-native English speaker might misunderstand. They may grasp the words but not the meaning. Stop using such terminology. Simple, clear and short is the way to go by using more common English words and verbs.
Drop the football and baseball metaphors that would work for a North American audience but not from other parts of the world. If you are going to use sports metaphors, try to work in some metaphors from a far more global sport like soccer.
3) Slow Down
Reduce your speaking speed a little. This is something that may seem like common sense but often gets away from us. As a naturally fast talker myself, what works for me is introducing intentional pauses into my speaking, even noting that by writing “pause here” in the content that I present or teach.
Ask people to let you know when you need to slow down. If they are uncomfortable telling you, learn to recognize from their body language when they struggle to follow and dial back on the speed a little. You can also ask other native speakers on a call to pull back a bit and slow down.
Don’t forget to drink some water before and during a call to ensure your voice is clear. And you may want to skip having an energy drink or espresso before the meeting, to avoid getting too energetic.
4) Tell People In Advance They’ll Be Speaking On A Call
Suddenly being asked to speak in English can be a very stressful experience for non-native speakers. By letting them know in advance that you’ll call on them in the meeting or that they’ll need to say something, you can reduce their anxieties about speaking in English. Giving them advance notice means that they can have time to prepare content and prepare themselves mentally.
5) Do More Work Asynchronously
Reducing pressure on non-native speakers can be further reduced by giving them more time to think and contribute outside of meetings by working asynchronously. Use collaborative tools like Mural, Miro, Google Docs, Teams Chat or Slack so that people can work offline and have more time to think before contributing ideas. Give them less pressure to do it in real-time when they may be confounded by English or lack confidence in their ability.
If team members are quiet in meetings or if you sense that they weren’t following the meeting, follow-up with them afterward. They may be more likely to admit their lack of understanding or request clarification in a one-on-one setting rather than in a group environment. Let all team members know you are willing to have these follow-up calls. Make it one of your team norms.
These tips can start us on the road to working more effectively with our non-native English speaking colleagues. By creating an environment on calls that helps others feel confident in their English ability. we can ensure that we have greater understanding with our co-workers and business partners.