How To Communicate Better in A Global Workplace?

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Written by: pTranslate Contributors


“I don’t quite understand what my business partners are saying, and it hinders our workflow a lot.”

overcome language barriers at work

The language barrier is no longer something unfamiliar to us. As we grow global and expand beyond our borders, we will find ourselves surrounded by people from all walks of life and cultures.

They are not like us. And we are not like them.

They speak different languages, use different verbal gestures, think in different ways, and do businesses with different values. It is really easy to misunderstand each other due to this stark contrast. Although English is the accepted global language for business, sometimes we can’t just use it to communicate with non-natives. If you have worked with a global company with employees from other countries and regions, you will definitely know why. 

Sometimes people don’t have excellent English. If they are from other countries, their skills may vary a lot, from bad to mediocre, to conversational. If they have an accent, it will be even harder to understand what they want to get across. 

On the other hand, you don’t have enough knowledge and skills in their native language to communicate with them. It’s already a struggle to communicate basic ideas and things. When it comes to sharing major information that is business-related, language barriers can be a big obstacle in your way. Misunderstandings can cause a lot of trouble. Lost deals, deep frustrations, even millions of dollars lost in revenue: they are all possible consequences. 

At the end of the day, you can’t just avoid talking to each other. There will be times when conversations are needed, and you will have to go through that, no matter what. 

In this post, we will provide some of the biggest tips that you can use when communicating in the international business environment. It will take some time to get used to it all, but everything will be alright. Over time, you will develop a better understanding of your fellow workers and business partners. 

1. Communicate in written language instead of spoken language

Writing is a powerful tool. Sometimes we underestimate its power in the workplace because we think that it takes a lot of time. Most people just go straight to the people they want to communicate with and tell them. After all, direct communication is more effective than messaging. However, in the case of communicating with non-native speakers, writing seems to work better. 

Why? Because writing is slower. Writing allows both sides to reflect on what they want to say. It gives them time to choose the right words and structures to convey their ideas. 

On the contrary, when speaking, they have to think fast and speak quickly. Some people might not be able to express ideas in their non-native language fluently. Another scenario is that the non-native speaker can’t keep up with the speaking speed of the other speaker. Sometimes they can even unknowingly miss out on important information. 

It is then better to bring all of the detailed and complex information into the form of emails. We will have more time to frame the right questions, while the other person will have more time to construct the answers. 

2. Don't be afraid to use simple words or simplify the message

The main rule of simplification is “act like a kid”. We all know that a kid can’t understand big things yet, and there are a lot of ways to help them understand big things. If you apply this rule in those situations, you will find how easy it is to communicate with each other. 

The power of your messages lies in what you got across. If you realize that there is a gap of understanding between workers, try to use simpler words. Do not try to use too technical words to the person that is struggling to understand even the basic words. 

Similarly, stay away from all slang, cultural references, or else you are risking to sound all gibberish. For example, if you want to say “That’s really easy!”, just say it. Do not say “That’s easy as pie!” or “Sweet!”. 

Although it might seem obvious on your side, the other person may have taken it literally. Confusion is not easy to overcome once it has settled in. If you can tell everything more simply, do it. You can always communicate in a more complex fashion to people who actually understand what you mean. Remember, know who you are talking to.

Simplify your message by using simple structures. Do not use long sentences with clunky wording. Be simple. Stay straight to the point. If possible, try to express only one or two thoughts in one sentence. Don’t be unnecessarily complex.

Another way to simplify your messages is using symbols and drawings. 

Symbols are universal. We have seen the same symbols representing the same thing appearing in all cultures and nations. If your company, or your workplace, has a system where you can share ideas through symbols and drawings, make use of it. 

You can also agree on a few ways to communicate information quickly with your teammates and workers without having to say a word, e.g. through hand gestures. There is more to communication than words, right?

 You can try to ask the other person to simplify everything to a Yes/No question. One person will ask questions for clarification in the form of “Yes or No”, while the other person answer only with Yes or No. There is absolutely no extra information added.  

By doing so, you will be able to extract clear-cut information from the other person while minimizing confusion. Ask them about 20 questions max and you should have an idea of what they meant. You can use it in combination with other methods we mentioned above.

3. Tell them to repeat the message

This may sound obvious, but that is exactly why the confusion in communication never got resolved. Sometimes, due to culture, or personalities, people don’t want to speak up. 

In some cultures, people don’t want to express negativity (which is the word “no”), and they try to stay polite. They are afraid that asking the other person to repeat what they’ve just said seems rude. However, it is necessary, even crucial, to embrace this idea. 

It is completely normal to miss a few key pieces of information when talking to each other, and we should try our best to make things clear before getting down to business. If the confusion is not resolved, the work results might be affected. Both sides will be disappointed, and this is even worse than just asking the other person to clarify all along. Fixing the mistakes caused by the confusion takes a lot of time, effort, and even money. Nobody wants that to happen.

Another way to clear up the confusion is to confirm what the other person has just said. You can just repeat back to them what you heard, and ask them if you understood them fully. If you find it hard, maybe try writing it down. As we have mentioned in the previous section, writing gives both sides some time to reflect and choose the right words, which helps communication go smoothly. 

Of course, there are times when repeating doesn’t work. One person might struggle to get their ideas across, while the other person might struggle to understand what they mean. After countless “Could you please repeat that?”, you can’t still quite get what they mean. Usually, people got frustrated and annoyed after the third or fourth time of having to repeat what they originally said. This is when problems set in. This is when people realize that there is going to be a lot of misunderstanding when they work together.

When this happens, try to resort to other ways that don’t require direct, oral communication. For example, you might want to ask the other person to provide you with examples of what they said. They may provide a picture, a video, a drawing, or anything that is more visual and easier to understand. Visualization of a problem is usually the best way to explain a concept that is too abstract, and it works in this case, too! 

4. Speak slowly, clearly, and try to follow what you said

Speaking slowly is a wonderful thing, not a bad thing. 

As long as you get your ideas across without making the other person bored, you are doing great. Speaking slowly allows the other person to absorb what you meant, and it goes both ways. 

Consciously pause if you are conversing with a non-native or a less-fluent English user than you. Emphasize the important points and try to pronounce those keywords as clearly as possible. 

Before speaking, you should have an idea of the major points you want to get across. Once you reach those points, slow down, and stress it, possibly repeat it several times to make sure that they understand thoroughly what you meant. 

When you speak, try to follow what you said. Make sure that you didn’t forget to emphasize your keywords or your major points. 

Try to be as specific as possible. As you are trying to communicate with people who don’t understand you well, using vague words only worsens things. Try to state a number, a deadline, a date, or anything that helps them pinpoint exactly what you want to tell. 

5. Find a translator or an interpreter

Of course, when all else fails, we need a translator. Usually, for small projects with a limited budget, we won’t want to go the extra mile to hire one. However, if your budget allows, finding a good translator or an interpreter can help you avoid a lot of potential trouble. If possible, you can always find a native, or a local in the area who knows the language and pay them to translate the conversations. A good translator can help a big deal, and finding the right one means a lot for you, your colleagues, and your projects.

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