Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Navigating Differences in Language

Dear Joseph,

One of my direct reports has a very thick accent. His job is to define business needs for our customers and hand them off to our database techs. When he does this orally, none of us understand much of what he is saying. I sense he is exasperated as well because he is trying his best and cares about his work. He has good writing skills, but he is not confident and resists writing anything unless pressed. The rest of the team tries to be patient, but gives up after a point. He is also very sensitive and feels hurt when we ask him to repeat himself. How can I tell him he needs to improve his communication skills?

Lost in Translation

Dear Lost,

This will be much, much, much easier than you think. And as soon as you believe that—it will be much, much, much easier!

You are making two mistakes here that are easy to fix:

1. You are having content conversations when you need to have a relationship one.

2. You are feeding his defensiveness with your own.

First, it sounds like you are talking about database requirements when you need to talk about your working relationship. One of the most common mistakes in crucial conversations is talking about the wrong thing. If your real concern is, “we need a more efficient way of communicating,” but what you’re discussing is, “what kind of user interface does the client need?”—the real issue will drive everything. You’ll be discussing screen designs but underlying it will be nervousness, defensiveness, and hyper-sensitivity, because you’re not talking about what’s truly going on. Everyone senses it. Everyone knows it. But no one is saying it. So set aside a special time to have this very specific relationship conversation. Don’t wait until there is another frustrating interaction about customer requirements. If you do, then the conversation will be clouded and confused with the content issue on the table.

Second, stop focusing on your fears and start focusing on your goals. One of the reasons he is defensive about this issue is because he senses your fear of it. Research shows that when you feel fear, your body language telegraphs it to others—causing them to become protective. For example, if as you approach him, your voice is tight, you blink a bit too fast, and your arms are crossed over your stomach—he picks up these little behavioral signals and senses there is looming danger. It’s kind of like when you watch someone walk face first into a closed glass door and you reflexively put your hand to your own nose. Specialized neurons in our brains enable us to empathize by triggering shadows of the sensations we would feel if our bodies were in the same circumstances as someone we are watching. The same is true of emotions. You know what embarrassment feels like. It’s when you deliver the opening joke to your speech and no one laughs. Crickets. In fact, most break off eye contact with you and begin looking at their mobile phones. It’s painful. We feel something similar when we watch it happen to someone else (I call it ex-barrassed). Your stomach turns in knots even though it’s not you at the front of the room. This principle works in reverse during crucial conversations. When you show up all in knots, others sense it and begin to feel protective about the topic you are now stammering your way into.

So how can you avoid making the conversation harder than it needs to be? Focus on your goals. This is a mental exercise first, and a conversational one second. Ask yourself, “What awesome, wonderful, out-of-this-world gift can this conversation give to the other person if it goes well?” Get that goal clear in your mind.

For years, I marveled at Kerry Patterson’s ability to give me incredibly direct feedback without making me feel defensive. I remember the first joint writing project I did with him twenty-five years ago. I handed him my first draft. He read it and basically said, “This is awful.” But it didn’t hurt. I wondered why. Over time, I came to realize it was because he had a clear vision in his mind of how good a writer I could be. And he wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of helping me get there. When he approached me, he wasn’t fidgety, worried, or clenched up. He was open, excited, and optimistic. He’d start peppering me with instructions about how to improve it, and since he didn’t seem to think the current dismal state of the piece was a big deal—I didn’t either.

You have an incredible gift to offer your colleague. Come into the conversation enthusiastically. Focus on the thought, “I want to have a fabulous and productive working relationship with you for many years. And I want you to be able to succeed with every other English-based team you work with in the future. This conversation can help you do that—isn’t that awesome!”

Then get to the point. Don’t beat around the bush or you’ll telegraph fear. Say, “Our unfamiliarity with your accent makes it really inefficient to communicate sometimes. I want to find a way to make it much, much easier for you and all of us to get things done. Let’s talk!”

I can promise you that if this is your attitude coming in, you’ll generate safety rather than sensitivity.

Best Wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

15 thoughts on “Navigating Differences in Language”

  1. John Shoucair

    Many Universities that teach English as a Second Language also have a course called “Accent Reduction”. I would recommend this course very effective course for anyone in a similar situation.

  2. Nadege

    An accent reduction class with a speech therapist can do it too just speaking from experience!!

  3. Ron

    This has been presented from the perspective of Lost and what Lost can do to improve the conversation and the relationship. What’s your take on the other side of this particular dynamic? I’m on the other side – I’m 95% deaf, speak very well with slight impediment in speech, can’t use phone for voice communications (can text, use relay, can use Skype, etc…). I compensate really well, perhaps too well, to the point that people often forget that I’m deaf (which is actually a compliment). What can this individual and I do help Lost and others like Lost find common ground. I struggle with this daily. It’s tiring and exhausting, both emotionally and mentally.

  4. Bill Rumbaugh

    I work for a large corporation. Here, it is politically incorrect to acknowledge or mention that someone may have an accent. In my early days as a manager, I’ve mentioned it and had HR jump down my throat for doing so. For them, “different” can be interpreted as “inferior” and the company is scared to death of discrimination lawsuits. The result is the 500 pound gorilla in the room that everybody knows about but no one mentions. So it does not get dealt with. With the growing percentages of employees with “unpronounceable” names, communication is becoming more trying every day.

  5. David

    If possible, please return the results of implementing this feedback.

  6. Patty Miller

    The advice you shared is very good, however this is something I see all the time with new Canadians. They may be extremely smart however communication is a big part of the job. Having a very thick accent can keep this person from blooming in their new country. As a Sr. HR Consultant,I recommend people with thick accents to invest in Accent Reduction training, sometimes the company will pay for this. This is excellent, specialists teach you how to roll your tongue and actually minimize your accent. The investment in themselves will prove valuable for current for future career growth. Remember, it is not only technical skills that get you the job but communication and soft skills too.

  7. Trish

    I loved this post a lot. Especially this quote: “What awesome, wonderful, out-of-this-world gift can this conversation give to the other person if it goes well?” Get that goal clear in your mind. A couple of people over the years have given me that gift, not always as smoothly as you are recommending, but it was still a gift and I made changes because of it.

  8. Dr LInne Bourget MA MBA Ph.D.

    Joseph, excellent advice, deeper than the usual superficial techniques, and dovetails with my 30+ yrs. of positive change leadership work…would add some exploration of cultural aspects the accentedemployee has with positive valuing of those beneficial…I grew up multi-nationally/multi-lingually and always enjoy learning about new cultures and languages…when appreciated, those of other cultures are often eager to work on their accents or learn our idioms. This can be fun!

    He should though be willing to write until accent issues smooth out and in fact documentation of technical requirements is better for everyone and reduces rework and misunderstandings anyway (from the corporate quality movement in which I “grew up”).
    Dr Linne Bourget MA MBA Ph.D.

  9. Yvea Zaels

    Joseph, I love that you choose this topic. We are facing systematic and leadership challenges in collaboration and communication across teams with English as Second Language (ESL) members. We are expected to collaborate effectively in the current workplace that resembles Babylon. However, there is no training for any of the team members, being native English or ESL, to acquire the essential skills. I taught almost thousand people how to provide effective feedback for ESL individuals, to close the gap. Especially native English speakers feel relieved after having the knowledge of how to provide kind and effective feedback.
    The reality is that most ESL expect and crave feedback. 99% of ESL individuals have no idea how their communication affects others. Majority don’t know how to improve their English and what is the expected English proficiency at work. HR or even diversity personnel are afraid of language discrimination. Yet language is not a ground for discrimination. Newcomers are required to know the official language. Employers request excellent communication skills, but don’t provide the guidelines for ESL. We have a long way to go to set clarity and build the needed skills. Thank you for selecting this important topic.

    1. David Bigelow

      What a refreshing voice of clarity. Thank you!

  10. Debbie

    I work in a team with many nationalities represented and we’re all surrounded by folks with different accents. I find after speaking with another – and really listening – my ear adapts to their accent, after which communication is fluid. It’s easier and friendlier to understand others than to change them!

    1. David Bigelow

      Sometimes that true. It depends on the circumstances. A person laying in the ditch would probably rather you help him change his position in life than to just understand his dilemma. Give people a hand up from where they are.

  11. Sara Arc Clark (@SaraAClark)

    Thank you for this post. Thinking about differences in communication styles across cultures, some cultures are very comfortable having conversations about the relationship and others aren’t at all. As Janet Bennett calls “relational confrontation” and, as I understand, relational confrontation is uncommon many Asian cultures and in Northern European cultures. How does this play into the comfort and success of trying to have a relationship conversation with a person who is not accustomed to having that kind of discussion?

  12. Maxine Davidson RN

    In the medical field it is usually Multi Cultural, many have accents. Speech Therapy can help to alleviate this problem.

  13. Judy Ringer

    Thanks, Joseph. Terrific post. I like so many pieces that have already been mentioned, especially moving from fear to goal orientation, both as mental and conversational act. I also appreciate moving this from a content to relationship conversation. And crucially, as you say, once we believe it will be easy, it will be.

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