Leveraging ELL Communication Skills in the Workplace

Leveraging the Communication Skills of English Language Learners in the Workplace

people at a conference table
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By Kim Hitchcock, ELCS, LLC

We are all conditioned to communicate in different ways. “Speaking up” in a way that’s expected in the United States may not be self-evident to a foreign-born employee. Depending on culture and personality type, an individual may appear formal or casual, shy or overbearing. Employees may not take on qualities that are generally considered “American”, such as asserting oneself, presenting ideas confidently, taking risks, etc.
In the video series “Communication Styles around the Globe: Bowling, Basketball and Rugby”, Susan Steinbach compares communication styles to these three sports. She likens the American conversational style to basketball, where the ball is passed or sometimes taken. Many, though not necessarily all people have a turn with the ball or have a chance to speak. In many Asian cultures, in contrast, the dominant communication style is a bit more like bowling. Turn taking in a conversation is more prescribed, and goes in a specific order according to seniority, social status, etc. Everyone gets a turn.

Also in some Asian cultures, modesty is a desired virtue. An expert will often withhold some of his/her knowledge on a subject in order to appear humble and not stand out from the group. This is different from their American counterparts, who may be seen as overconfident to the Asian professional.

But whatever the reasons for these differences, everyone can benefit when expectations for workplace communication are clearly spelled out. What, specifically, does your company expect of each person on a team? Does everyone need to speak in a meeting? How often is information volunteered?

In order to encourage employees to break out of their comfort zones, specific information should be given, either verbally or in the form of a checklist. Here are some ideas:

  • You are having a meeting at your company. Encourage your employee to contribute a new idea or point of view to the discussion.
  • The employee has some new research findings or unique knowledge in an area of expertise. Encourage her to take the initiative to share that knowledge with others.
  • Ask your employee to take a risk by telling a joke or a funny story to “break the ice”.
  • Ask the employee to take minutes, and then send an e-mail summarizing what was discussed in a meeting.

Of course, you will have other ideas that fit your context. The main point is to be specific and to communicate expectations clearly. You can help create a comfortable environment that encourages people to assert themselves. Encourage participation, ask specific questions, and promote a comfortable, encouraging environment where everyone has a chance to put forth ideas. Let people know that it is okay to make mistakes with the language.

What have you found effective as you work with your international employees?

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We periodically share news and updates about language and our business. We’ll never share your contact information with anyone.