Lessons From Working With Teams Who Speak English as a Second Language

By | 2019-08-08T17:27:44+00:00 August 6th, 2019|Consulting Business, skmurphy|0 Comments

Some thoughts on things we do to make it easier for teams who speak English as a second language to understand us.

Lessons From Working With Teams Who Speak English as a Second Language

We work with a lot of folks, probably more than 50% of our clients, who speak English as a second language. I unconsciously do two things that make it more difficult for them and consciously do three to try to make it easier.

Things I do that make me more difficult to understand:

  • I talk fast and often slur my words. I do try and consciously slow down and am not offended if asked to repeat myself. I have also started to record–with meeting attendees permission–more meetings and sharing the recordings and in some cases transcripts. This allows me to listen again to complex technical descriptions or insights they shared in the conversation. It also allows them to share with team members who could not attend.
  • I use a lot of analogies and idioms that don’t translate well–I make it clear that it’s OK to ask, “what the heck does that mean?”

Things I do to make myself easier to understand:

  • Our slides tend to bullets and diagrams to communicate complex topics clearly. We tend to avoid images that express an emotion or a joke as they can be particularly hard to parse.
  • We normally “take notes in public” by writing down key points in a shared document or chat. One of us will act as a contemporaneous note taker, capturing key points that anyone makes so that everyone can read the gist in addition to hearing it. This “real time subtitles” approach also communicates that we are actively listening and if we have misunderstood something, or they realize they misspoke and want to rephrase, then they can revisit that point immediately.
  • There is another point to make about expressing key points in writing as well as verbally: many folks have a much higher comprehension for written English than spoken English, so this provides the information in form that’s easier to understand, and easier to reprocess several times to improve comprehension. If they have misunderstood one or two key words in the sentence, mentally repeating it to themselves is not as fruitful as re-reading the written version.
  • We try to use more diagrams to explain concepts as the visual input gets processed differently from spoken or written language.  This will often unlock an understanding or offer another perspective that is useful–especially if we are face to face at a white board or with a piece of paper we can both mark up in turns.

Things I do to understand what they want to communicate:

  • I mentioned this above:  we often record the conversation–with permission–so that we can reprocess a complex description or insight they have shared. This is particularly important in early conversations where everyone is trying to get their bearings.
  • If we are face to face I will often ask them to draw a picture of the situation or challenge. It’s very common that this produces a more intuitive and comprehensible explanation or description.

“If you talk with a pen you can offer richer insights.
If you listen with a pen you can unlock more insights from a prospect”
Kate Rutter (@katerutter) in “SketchNotesSF Meetup round 18: Talk with a Pen / Listen with a Pen (Wed-May-27-2015)

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