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Overcoming obstacles to quality conversations

English lessons from foreign discussions 

Costly misunderstandings

Costly misunderstandings

We like to think we’re good communicators – and sometimes we’re rather quick to identify others who aren’t, aren’t we?

Wouldn’t it be great if – in every work conversation – there was a balanced pace, mutual understanding, broad cooperation and seemingly few egos but no less personality?

This is why I love working with international participants in workshops. To clarify, I’m talking about my experiences when English is the second language compared to when it’s everyone’s first.

What can we learn from this dynamic?

Whether it’s sharing feedback about each others’ Presentation Skills, talking cultural differences or financial technical skills, the topic doesn’t seem to matter – there’s simply a wealth in the exchanges. It’s noticeable when a non-native English speaker is in a room of native English speakers. The non-native may hold more command.

It can be noticeable too how a native English facilitator may in fact facilitate better in such a setting. Of course, it takes more attention, concentration and patience to steer between accents to seek out meaning.

What is it about non-native English conversations?

These characteristics may be distinctive:


Speaking slowly

Articulating as clearly as possible

Aiming to be understood

Giving examples to illustrate

Using multiple descriptions to make explanation easier

Being honest and specific

Checking – verbal and non-verbal – signals to verify understanding

Attentive eye contact to notice changes in attention and mood

Pauses between phrases, to think and plan next sentences

Willingness to be challenged and to clarify


Listening intently

Seeking to understand what the person is saying and why

Treating the person as if they have something important to offer

Not abruptly interrupting to impatiently make a point

Seeking to understand misunderstandings

Eagerness to avoid incorrect assumptions

Interrupting graciously to ask for clarification to enhance understanding

Paraphrasing to confirm understanding

…all examples of “Active Listening.”

Does it change conversation structure?

When it’s not their first language, people aren’t trapped by the false (British English) politeness nor the mammoth vocabulary that accompanies it. It’s refreshing to hear direct statements such as

  • I don’t think
  • I don’t like
  • It’s good that..

There’s no offence taken in the simple sharing of honest thoughts but a gratitude for the clarity.

After these conversations, people seem more tired – following intense periods of concentration. Yet the ambience is more united, respectful, calm, clear and energised. They haven’t taken many notes but have retained necessary information. Plus there’s an air of learning, not just talking.

There are plenty of biases at play in any setting. So this is merely observation – without even the backing of study or science. And many may have quite different experiences.

What changes could we make?

In a meeting, by telephone, or by email – might we adopt such approaches when we seek better quality conversation and to speak the same language by :

1. Listening to understand

2. Speaking to be understood

3. Listening and speaking further – to clarify

Shouldn’t we avoid talking from the perspective of our prioritiesor project, department or business function, specialism or technical skills? But listen hard to garner as much as possible from others – in order to make the best contribution and decisions?

It may mean we:

  • Prepare better
  • Slow down
  • Allow longer

We speed by in our multi-channel, multi-gadget lives – often not giving due attention to any one thing. Perhaps multi-cultural working reminds us that we should?

By helping someone to understand us and to understand them – without assuming that we already do we could avoid sounding double-Dutch.

Ironically, non-native English speakers say “I worry about my English!” Perhaps so should we?

Please comment.

Other articles you may like:

Time that talking made a comeback?

Actively listening for co-operative conversation

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