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10 tips for Effective Communication in English with Non-Natives

davidlivermore | January 9th, 2014 1 Comment

Guest post by Sunita Sehmi

Don’t just concentrate on what you have to say…

#01 Be empathetic
Whilst we all may ‘speak the same language’ in a multilingual context, we may not necessarily ‘speak the same way’ so put yourself in your non-native colleague’s shoes and identify how tough it is to be effective communicators when presenting, or participating in conference calls and meetings.  It’s hard enough in our mother tongue to be effective communicators and without doubt it’s an added pressure for non-natives in a competitive business environment.

#02 Be interested in the listener
Don’t just focus on your message, but think about what your audience is hearing. Gauge your message according to your listeners and be creative.

#03 Patience pays
Be respectful and tolerant, bear in mind that for some non-natives, English could be their second, third or fourth language. Sensitivity will help you to connect with your non-native colleagues.

#04 Put your cards on the table
Use collective experiences to establish common ground. Perhaps you have struggled in a presentation or a meeting in another language. Demonstrate to your colleagues that you understand and recognise that it’s not always easy to operate in a foreign language.

#05 Be straightforward
Think about your personal use of metaphors and idioms and colloquiums. Try to avoid at all costs slang, jargon and abbreviations. Think how this could be interpreted in the non-native’s own language and how this could impede their process of meaning and its significance.

#06 Be informed
Read up about the people in your team and where they come from. People have different cultural communication styles and cultural attitudes towards hierarchy and conflict and it is important to be aware of these prior to negotiations and meetings.

#07 Mirror, mirror
Adapt, modify and match communication styles with your audience. Building rapport is an essential ingredient in successful cross-cultural communication.

#08 Be aware of all the “cultures” in the room
The influence of one’s own cultural identity, the collective cultures, the national culture and corporate culture of the organization, all play significant roles in impacting communication and this is vital to remember when working with non natives.

#09 Find common ground
Concentrate on the similarities not on the differences. This seems obvious but by focusing on the similarities we are creating a strong basis to build on. When we focus on the similarities it becomes easier to be objective about the differences.

#10 Pregnant pause
It is imperative to pause when communicating with non-natives, thus allowing them to fully process the information and construct a suitable answer. Don’t be afraid of silence, it is a useful and powerful tool and it shows that you’re listening!

Sunita Sehmi is a Business Consultant, Coach and Trainer. She is the Founder and Director of Walk The Talk, Language, Communication and Culture. For more information please go to


One Noun. One Verb: Speaking to Non-Native English Speakers

davidlivermore | March 5th, 2012 2 Comments

I often watch customer service people interacting with foreign visitors. Inevitably, the foreign customer will ask the sales agent to repeat something. The agent repeats it, just as fast, and often with a hint of exasperation. And the visitor stands just as confused. Eventually, I can’t stop myself from jumping in and explaning what the sales associate has just said. Usually all I’m doing is saying the same thing a bit more slowly and more clearly enunciated. The simple practice of slowing down our speech goes a long way for individuals who are unfamiliar with our accent or for whom English isn’t their first language.

It’s pretty easy to see when OTHER people need to do this. But last week my own ability to slow down was challenged to a whole new level. I had the privilege of spending three days speaking to a variety of Japanese leaders about global leadership and cultural intelligence. I knew going in that I would need to speak more slowly, deliberately, and simply. I’m a fast talker at any time. And I especially get moving at a fast rate when I’m speaking publically and working to evoke enthusiasm.

A couple hours into my first speaking engagement, it felt awkward but I felt like I was achieving it. During the first break, I asked the facilitator of the event how the communication was going. (I had already anticipated how I would get direct feedback from a Japanese host and thankfully, she accommodated me). She gently said, “I think it’s still a bit fast.” I couldn’t imagine going any slower but I vowed that I would try.

At the end of the day, we de-briefed together and she felt the pace was improved. However, she felt that the concepts I was introducing were new to many of the leaders. She said, “In addition to slowing down, I wonder if you can pause between statements, and limit your sentences to one noun and one verb. Don’t mix more than one concept together.

All I could say was, “I’ll try.”

It gradually improved. And by the end of the three days, I found a cadence that seemed to work for me and that my host called more “Japanese-friendly.” And even though it was hard work, it wasn’t as hard 3 days in as it was the first day.

Of course by the time I was speaking to a group of American leaders Friday night, I was back to my old ways and speaking 180 mph.

I walked away with a few observations:

1. What feels slow to me is probably still fast to others–especially to a non-native English speaker.

2. Even when speaking with native English speakers, chilling out a bit would be a good thing.

3. Some of the stories I often share just aren’t necessary. I was much more selective about using one more illustration which allowed for more group interaction. Again, I could stand to apply this to all groups.

4. Of course we certainly have to beware of an extreme over-reaction where we speak sooooo sllllooowwwllllly that it’s insulting. But I’m a long way from that!

One of the things we consistently say about cultural intelligence is that it’s a dynamic process of being true to yourself and adapting to another culture. Last week was definitely one of those “easier said than done” moments. But I came away invigorated by the challenge of the many ways I have yet to improve my own CQ.