6 myths about English at work

“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” Susan Cain.

Learning a language is an illusive skill. It can create great joy in being able to communicate across boundaries, but equally, sometimes, great fear – fear of making mistakes and not being able to express yourself fully and, therefore, the feeling of having your personality suppressed.

Across many professional industries, I often work with staff members who have been identified as having weak English language skills, and it is often suggested that brushing up on grammar and building vocabulary banks will increase skills to a level more adequate for the job.

At the same time, I have learnt that there is a broad range of understanding around what it is to speak another language in the workplace, as well as there being little understanding of the differences between communication and language skills.

From the outside, it is easier for managers and recruiters to identify weaknesses of fluency and vocabulary in their non-native speaking colleagues and candidates. However, most staff members undergoing coaching themselves feel the need to build capacity around

  • developing rapport,
  • communicating effectively in meetings,
  • giving effective presentations,
  • delivering persuasive messages in both indirect and more direct ways, or
  • smoothly interacting with colleagues and clients by effectively using small talk.

That is why it is imperative to infuse cross-cultural and general communication components into language proficiency coaching, at the corporate level. While staff members can have ranging capabilities in language and cultural intelligence, the two are not always linked. There are many other myths around language that can provide serious challenges for senior management and human resources staff. Here are a few of those myths.

  1. Language proficiency is job proficiency. It is true that a lack of language proficiency can lead to many challenges in productivity, collaboration, customer and even staff retention. However, promoting or hiring the candidate due to English language fluency alone could lead to lost opportunities by not engaging with other highly gifted and adaptable candidates who are yet to fully master their corporate confidence in English.
  1. Fluent English equals a good communicator. Just because someone speaks fluently, does not mean they have the best ideas, strongest leadership capabilities or even best communication skills. Skills in persuasive language, meeting behaviour and presentation delivery can be nurtured with some linguistic refinement and strategic tools.
  1. We are better off laterally hiring middle management staff with native English communication skills. Candidates coming from other companies have learnt another company’s culture and now have to become a good fit in the new culture. Younger, graduate candidates who are nurtured linguistically and otherwise, learn the company culture from the beginning and feel valued when the company invests in their professional skills development and are, therefore, more likely to show loyalty to the company. This will also reduce costs around high rates of recruitment turnover.
  1. Native English speaking staff members are more confident. When considering who is speaking up in meetings or even who is attending meetings, it might be easier to single out the native English speakers. In speaking with non-native staff members, it has been a recurring comment that it is one thing to operate in a meeting where everyone is a non-native speaker and a complete other thing where there is a dominant group of native speakers. Research shows that even the most proficient non-native speakers feel intimidated in native-speaker environments. This suggests that there is a need for all staff to consider a unified approach to language in multinational teams and how communication is working.
  1. Language has nothing to do with culture. A fluent language user is not the same thing as being culturally proficient. However, language weakness is often more a case of finding the right linguistic cues to meet the new culture or hit the right mark when dealing with multinational teams.
  1. Non-native speakers need to improve their skills. This, of course, is true in many cases, but it is not the only element that has to change in multinational teams. Native speakers have a role to play when there is a range of fluency levels. They cannot continue to talk as if talking with people of their same culture and language and managers need to manage this carefully. Native speakers might need to slow down slightly, use less colloquial terminology and be proactive in assist co-workers to participate in the conversation.

Good language skills are not just about fluency and a good bank of vocabulary. It’s also about carefully placed questions, listening, ensuring understanding has been achieved and, most importantly, the reading of subtle cues and reactions in sensitive situations. The answer is refining a combination of cross-cultural capability and linguistic proficiency.

The good news is that all these things can be learnt and it is better to invest in the people who have the raw skills, business potential and technical competencies to get the job done – rather than responding to the most fluent, confident and loudest speaker.

Do not let language proficiency cloud management and recruitment decision and belief systems around who is the strongest candidate for the job.

National and Organisational Culture

It is always interesting to think about where and how cross-cultural communication and competencies comes into project management or organisational success. It is also often a difficult thing to discuss with so many generalisations that are helpful in many ways, but also lead to oversimplification and stereotyping.

Karen Smits talks about her research into national and organisational cultures with some interesting findings from her investigation into a large multinational, multiorganisational project in Central America. She is interviewed by Chris Smit in this audio file at the following address.

3 Tips for cross-cultural collaboration

  1. Have an Open Mind; Know your own culture and be able to understand the “other” culture.
  2. Adapt & Adjust; Or go with the flow. If someone is late for a meeting don’t get (too) upset.
  3. Language; be aware that not everyone can express themselves in a foreign language as well as you might be able to do.

5 Language & Cultural Elements of Karen’s Case Study in Panama

Towards the end of the interview Karen discusses some generalisations around her own Dutch nationality and the Panamanian one she found herself in during her research. She identifies certain important dimensions and made her own observations:

  1. Time – the Dutch are very adherent to time and therefore being late is seen as being a time waster; however, in Panama this is more relaxed and fluid.
  2. language – the Dutch language and therefore behaviour is more direct whereas the Panamanians tend to be softer and smoother and less harsh.
  3. family – the Dutch family involves more immediate family whereas in Latin America it is extended to aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews.
  4. gender – Karen felt she was able to get access more due to her position in this male dominated construction environment.
  5. appearance – Karen also felt that her blond hair and blue eyes gained her greater access to information and sections of the company – where she might not have otherwise succeeded.

Karen’s cross-cultural collaborations research on the Panama Canal Expansion Program involved a combination of national cultural diversity (Spaniards, Italians, Belgians, Panamanians and Americans working together) and organisational cultures across a number of different organisations all working closely together on the one project.

This showed her that culture needs to be high on the cultural agenda and the reality is that this doesn’t often happen. The reason for this seems to be that there is a strong focus on hard skills like engineering-related tasks and that the perception is that there is no time to spend on the softer skills such as cultural competencies. However, what gets overlooked, is the manner and approaches to work. Karen Smits says that it is not important to find a unified way of working but, in fact, to be aware of the differences so that they can be incorporated holistically into the development of the program in order to avoid conflict, breakdowns and inefficiencies.

She says that it is not necessarily coming from a place of ignorance, but rather that the urgency is underestimated. The ramifications are realised too late after conflict has occurred and this costs the organisation a lot of time and money to rectify in getting the program back on track.

The ideal solution for Karen Smits would be for someone like her to be involved from the beginning – before conflict arises – in order to lay the groundwork, which would be to undertake profiling to know the differences and similarities between collaborators and to instil a sense of equality with a focus on working effectively with these differences and similarities.

For more information on related issues go to Culture Matters.

 

 

 

Ted Talk of the Week – The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

I was instantly attracted to this new Ted Talk because I feel like I have often fallen into this habit of urging my students to be bold and get out there and put themselves forward. Be noticed!

Parindra – The Extrovert

I have often held up my extroverted students as examples. I’ve celebrated Parindra the confident, gregarious student who somehow made me his best friend in the breaks with his deft social skills and see-through flattery, which, I hate to admit, somehow worked on me. You must think I’m shallow…

I guess I constantly see people like Parindra get ahead. They get their foot in the door by being charming and endlessly putting themselves forward for opportunities even when there don’t seem to be any.

The Extrovert in Australia

But I guess what this Ted Talk made me see was that extroverts are supremely celebrated across America, and I would say Australia too, and maybe unjustly. I suspect, however, this isn’t the case in many cultures, where being predominantly a quiet, independent worker is much more respected and rewarded. I imagine a leader also looks different in this culture.

Leadership in Australia

Parindra will do well in Australia – I have no doubt. However, I would like to see Australia become less focused on the lion and start to celebrate the owl. Sharing the leadership between extroverts and introverts is also in line with embracing a more diverse workforce – a more diverse Australia. We need to stop seeing just the Richard Bransons as the quintessential leaders.

Back to teaching – my promise to my students

I will make more of an effort in my classes in the future to nurture the more introverted students and diversify my activities to accommodate the quiet thinkers, those that need quiet time to reflect and come up with potentially more well-thought out plans and solutions to problems and ultimately and hopefully I will nurture a quietly confident leader or two that will embrace a more diverse and thoughtful workforce. Optimistic, maybe… or maybe not?

So, in the words of Susan Cain:

  1. Stop the madness for constant group work…just stop it!
  2. Go to the wilderness…be like Buddha…have your own revelations!
  3. Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there!

And have the courage to speak softly!

Yes, I meant my LinkedIn profile to look like that…

Over the years, I have been asked about my LinkedIn profile as I have been told that it ‘seems a bit disjointed’. Recently, one of my corporate teachers subtly said to me, ‘you know, there are a lot of theatre references on your profile?’ with another colleague from the education sector telling me that it didn’t ‘look professional enough for the companies we’re dealing with’.

I have taken these comments on board and seriously considered them over the last few years. I even thought about splitting myself in two and having two profiles – one creative, one professional. It seems that there is an expectation out there to be wedded to one single objective and to follow one single path in order to achieve it but, somehow, this contradicts the era into which I was born. With parents of the Builder/Silent Generation, they had little opportunity to follow their dreams and therefore, encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be.

So, I travelled, lived abroad in France and The Netherlands, taught English to business people, studied the Arts (French, English Literature and Theatre with some disturbing moments of diving deep into the cultural realities around the First Peoples of Australia, Feminisms and Post-Colonialism) and after an attack of being responsible, I studied to become a high school teacher, which I never practiced but used to become a Director of Studies and now a small business owner of E4B | English for Business.

Along the way I have consistently loved and worked in the arts. I love culture and I am particularly interested in the miscommunications that occur when different cultures come together. In fact, as I look back over the theatre work I have done, it has been in new Australian writing, new voices and new stories that we don’t always see represented in our media or on our stages.

So, it seems that the stories I’m interested in hearing have the same objective as the culturally and linguistically diverse people I’m interested in working with and with the ultimate goal of bringing together a unified and diverse community. I yearn to see more representative numbers in high levels of management and I yearn to hear more stories that represent the whole Australia I see around me.

Is it possible that there is room for these stories in corporate Australia? They could help bridge the gap between the older, dominant, migrant culture and the newer, minority, migrant cultures (not to mention indigenous cultures) that always seem to have to go through their period of initiation or submission into leaving behind parts of themselves in order to fit the dominant, western mould.

Is it possible that we are just tolerating our diverse makeup rather than celebrating it? And what would happen if we seriously invested in celebrating who we really are: ethnically, creatively, professionally or even sexually? Your own diversity is because of your special mix of any of these elements and many more that place you in your unique position. Fitting the mould with a perceivably professional profile that ticks all the boxes is not always going to be what gets you the job.

My interest in storytelling, whether on theatre stages, with corporate clients or in classrooms, makes me more open to listening and looking for the differences. It might even help me open my eyes to different ways of communicating, problem solving and just being in the world. So, by bringing the two fragmented sides of my LinkedIn profile together and being a whole person, it might just make me a better communicator and storyteller as the two sides nourishes each other giving me my specialised niche.

So yes, I meant my LinkedIn profile to look like that…

Are you feeling high or low?

“You don’t have to tell me again, I’m not a child”

“If you don’t understand, you’re…well…hmmm.“

A high-context communicator is someone who uses words in a way that relies heavily on the context in which they are used or, in other words, someone who relies on the things that are not said or rather implied, to communicate the real meaning of what is meant. This often happens in environments that are quite homogenous and often result in languages being formed around fewer words to express meaning because one word can mean a number of things in different contexts.

“Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them”

“If you don’t understand, it is my fault.”

Low-context communicators, on the contrary, do not rely heavily on context and are therefore more explicit in their communication. These types of communicators can come from more newly developed countries that have been built on immigration where many cultures live side-by-side and require more explicit communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page (even as I’m writing this, I feel for that very reason, it’s important to explain that ‘on the same page’ means ‘everyone understanding each other’).

Low-context; rich vocabulary

English is arguably one of the richest languages, namely due to its Germanic origins and historical influences from Viking and Norman domination and more specifically Norman French and thus Latin. The link that I hadn’t made until recently was that rich languages like this are possibly an indication of low-context cultures because so many more words are needed to express explicit meaning rather than the alternative of intuiting meaning by what was not said or ‘reading the air’.

“Sinister buttocks”

Upon reading this article, I suddenly realised our rich language might seem to be laden with choice – many words meaning the same thing and therefore synonyms being readily available – meaning a number of different words can be inserted into a phrase to make it more sophisticated or, more sinisterly, to dodge the plagiarism accusation. This article has some hilarious examples of some awkwardly chosen synonyms and has led, aptly, to yet another addition to the English dictionary – ‘rogeting’…

Speak with Sophistication

When I meet student for the first time it is often at an initial hour-long interview in order to establish a thorough needs analysis. The more I do, the more I notice that corporate English students want to speak with more sophistication often when discussing complex ideas.

It is clear that they are able to speak with confidence in casual environments like these initial meetings but when it comes to communicating complex accounting structures and concepts to non-specialised staff they tell me that it becomes difficult. Equally, when in a social situation it is easy to talk about the weekend but when it comes to discussing the recent budget or Thailand’s recent military takeover, adequate vocabulary tends to be more challenging.

In a recent professional development, a presenter told a story of a man who learnt new languages by reading the newspaper. That might sound a bit optimistic but if I break it down a bit it becomes a handy exercise for building more sophisticated vocabulary.

Rather than just reading for meaning, he would highlight all the collocations and then transpose them onto a page. If we focus on Thailand’s recent shift to martial law he might have ended up with a list of words like this.

  • military takeover
  • former prime minister
  • prominent politicians
  • took over
  • temporary replacement
  • prominent figures
  • military facility
  • military spokesman
  • senior military official
  • top political posts
  • seized control
  • declared martial law
  • restore order
  • push through reforms
  • political turmoil

Following that he would look at the list and try to tell a story out-loud (even to himself in a private place) by using these words to solidify them in his brain.

By doing this relatively short activity, he not only built his knowledge of current affairs and therefore his ability to build rapport with other, but he also built his transferrable knowledge of collocations and his overall vocabulary – and a sophisticated one at that.

Try and make a story with the above words and then read the article they were taken from:

 

Ted Talk of the Day and Business English Presentations

In this Ted Talk of just under 7 minutes, Emdin talks about motivating teachers and changing the classroom with gusto.

While the tone seems a bit too American for an Australian context there are a number of things he does well and all of these elements translate into giving a good presentation for anyone.

  1. He tells a story. I know I’ve been talking about this before, but this really is the way to engaging your audience.
  2. He paints a picture. We can imagine the black church and its parishioners.
  3. He uses irony. We can see the bored education student listening to the tired lecturer about engaging the audience.
  4. He has passion and enthusiasm for his subject.
  5. He sets the scene. “Right now, there is an aspiring teacher who is working on a 60-page paper based on some age-old education theory developed by some dead education professor…”
  6. He uses repetition. “Right now, there is…”
  7. He uses body language. He makes eye-contact.
  8. He uses a personal pronoun. “Right now, there’s a student to come up with a way to convince his mum or dad that he’s very sick and can’t make it to school tomorrow.”
  9. He has great threads too.
  10. And, he uses humour.

See if you can weave some of these elements into your next presentation.

Click here to watch.

Never let a story get in the way of a good phrasal verb

The ever-feared phrasal verb is one of the main causes of concern for advanced business English speakers. This is especially the case in the workplace where native speaking colleagues consider them to be the easiest thing in the world to slip into conversation.

Generally speaking, business English phrasal verbs are a less formal way of communicating, which pretty much means they are being spoken in meetings, over the phone and in the lunchroom. They are probably being used in most emails too but rarely in more formal emails, official documents or reports where more Latin-based words are preferred.

So how to conquer the phrasal verb in the business English context?

My number one tip for improving your phrasal verb knowledge is to listen. Listen to your colleagues and develop your own personal phrasal verb lexicon and start working them into your conversations and emails where possible. If you currently have a teacher, present your list and ask for an activity that will help you exercise them. If not, find a confidante who will help you use them correctly.

By successfully stealing phrasal verbs from your colleagues you will find the ones that are most suitable to your unique business English context. The trick with phrasal verbs is that there are thousands of them and the other trick is getting the word order right.

Take a look at this online tool Lexchecker and see if your phrasal verb explanation can be found here.

Otherwise, search this online thesaurus for the correct usage and related synonyms.

And here is a good list of business English phrasal verbs to test your knowledge.

If you’re going it alone, why not try reading the MX newspaper on your commute home for a good variety of phrasal verbs. At least this might keep you more entertained than reading the articles. You could also try taking a few phrasal verbs from your favourite movie the next time you watch it – that shouldn’t detract from the storyline too much. Anyway, never let a story get in the way of a good phrasal verb.

8 tips on how to prepare for meetings

We all know that if – before any meeting, discussion, or even an important conversation – we prepare ourselves by thinking carefully about what we want to achieve and how we’re going to achieve it, the result will be far better than if we just go in cold and hope for the best.  What we say, and how we say it, can be critically important.

Here is a series of steps you can take that will help you prepare the language you’ll need if you’re going to get the result you want:

1.  What is the purpose of the meeting, discussion or conversation?  Who will be present?

2.  What is your role? Who will you be speaking to? What will you be saying?  Will you be presenting? Proposing? Explaining?  Asking questions or answering them?

3.  Depending upon the nature of the encounter, think of what you’re most likely to have to say – particularly your opening comment(s) if you’re leading the discussion – and any key issues you want to raise, points you want to make, questions you plan to ask, or answers you expect you’ll have to give.

4.  Write these down as you think of them and then go back and turn them into good sentences.  (If you’re in a course, bring these to class so that together with the trainer you can polish them.)

5.  Practice the sentences so that they become second nature and you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to construct them when it comes time to speak.

6.  Come prepared to your classes so that you can role-play the language for each situation with the trainer until you are confident in your ability to deliver it well whenever it’s needed.

7.  But . . . remember that the pursuit of perfection can be the enemy of effective communication, and that sometimes it’s better to continue to speak out firmly and confidently even if you stumble or realise you’ve made a mistake.  Doing so will make you far easier to listen to than if you hesitate and backtrack as you struggle for 100% correctness.

8.  Recognise too that that each situation you prepare for in this way will strengthen your ability to perform well even when you’re faced with a situation you haven’t rehearsed – and that the more preparation practice you have the more effective you will become.

Speaking Up in Meetings – when and how to interrupt, correct someone or ask for clarification

Business MeetingHow many times have you sat through a meeting with something brilliant to say but never knowing quite when to say it? Or realised half-way through the meeting that your colleague who spoke up has said something you completely disagree with? Or worse yet, found yourself nodding and smiling in agreement while wondering what in the world the discussion was actually about?

Speaking up in meetings — to interrupt, correct someone else, or ask for clarification — can be extremely intimidating. Having a few useful phrases available can go a long way towards giving you the confidence and tools you need to be able to interject your thoughts and opinions effectively in group situations and meetings.

When You’ve Got an Idea

Often people don’t speak up because they’re afraid of being seen as wrong, uninformed, or putting forward a stupid idea. A great way to sidestep this fear is to depersonalise your idea by putting a question to the group. When you think you just might have a good suggestion but aren’t absolutely confident about it, go ahead and start by introducing it with a comment that suggests it’s something the group might want to consider:

  • Have we thought about… getting Steve involved in the PR campaign directly?
  • Did anyone mention… the Brealy report? I seem to recall it covered some of the same topics Andrew has raised here.
  • Another option we might want to consider… is pushing back the timeline until early October.
  • Is it worth revisiting…last week’s minutes from the meeting to review the product specifications agreed upon?

The subtext here is that you’re contributing to the conversation and adding value to the group — but not personally claiming ownership of the idea or taking over the conversation. By using a more informal question you’ll be able to make your voice and idea heard, without overstating your commitment to that idea.

When You Disagree

It’s hard to disagree without being disagreeable. When the conversation is heading in a direction that you don’t agree with, it’s often hard to keep your mouth shut. Of course, it’s your right (and perhaps even your responsibility) to speak up when you want to challenge what has been said or give a completely different opinion.  The key is knowing how to adjust your comments so you don’t come off sounding tiresome or offensive. Here are a few strategies and helpful phrases to use in those awkward or tense moments:

  • Be very direct: I’m afraid I disagree with that assessment, Jon. Or, My experience has actually been quite different…I found the team to be highly engaging.
  • Be cautious: I just want to play devil’s advocate here for a moment, but what if we were to… go with the opposite approach and use direct mail marketing instead of relying solely on social media efforts?
  • Be provocative: This may shock you, but I want to…challenge our assumption that we have to take the deal.

When You’re Confused

And finally, what’s worse than sitting in on a meeting and having no idea what’s going on? You may have stumbled in late, tuned out at exactly the wrong moment, or simply never known much about the topic being discussed — and found yourself becoming more and more confused as the meeting progressed. Whatever the situation, the longer you wait to ask for clarification, the harder it is to meaningfully reinsert yourself into the conversation. Here are some good phrases to use the next time you find yourself lost in a meeting:

  • Forgive me if I’m missing something here, but I’m a little confused about…which marketing program you’re suggesting we table.
  • I’m not entirely sure I follow you – could you please recap what you just mentioned regarding… the August delivery?
  • I’m sure I’m supposed to know this already, but… how many attendees are we expecting at the conference next week?
  • I apologise if this is totally obvious to everyone here, but what does CAFE stand for?
  • This may be a stupid question, but I’m still not up to speed on why…we’re not using rail instead of truck.

While it’s obviously preferable to withhold your interruption until the speaker pauses briefly, sometimes the value of what you want to say depends on interjecting it at the exact point when it will have the most relevance and impact.  Whatever you do, remember that any interjection can be made more acceptable if you preface it with some polite or apologetic words:

  • Sorry to interrupt…but I don’t quite see it like that
  • Sorry, can I come in here…there’s something I think you’ve missed
  • I do see your point, but…I really can’t support the proposal
  • Would it be fair to say…that we were a bit premature in signing the contract?
  • Could I add something here?…I believe that’s covered in their latest annual report
  • I’d like to say something if I may…there may be another way we can go with this
  • My apologies, but I think you might be mistaken on that point…there’s really no evidence to back it up

At the end of the day, you’ll do better for yourself if you speak up in meetings and make your case — whether to push a new idea, correct a misconception or simply keep yourself up to date and current on what’s really going on. You owe it to yourself and your team to contribute to your fullest potential — it’s far less intimidating then you may think.

Written by David Andrew