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How to succeed in the international workplace when English is not your first language

You are outgoing, confident, and witty. Your colleagues always compliment you on your speaking abilities and presentation skills.

But now that you’re working in an English language environment, everything feels off.

You’re less enthusiastic about speaking up during meetings or volunteering for presentations. In fact, you’ve become the opposite of the social person you used to be and you’re worried about your accent or self-conscious about pronunciation. When a big part of your job is about interpersonal skills this is a problem.

A few workplace communication challenges you probably face include:

  1. Participating in a meeting and making a good impression on your colleagues
  2. Maintaining your composure during high-pressure public speaking situations
  3. Being heard during a phone conference with multiple participants
  4. Expressing your ideas clearly in formal and informal settings
  5. Handling situations where you don’t understand what someone said during a meeting with superiors or clients

Here are a few ways you can proactively address these challenges.

1.) Impressing your colleagues during a meeting

It’s time to get noticed during those weekly meetings. But how do you speak up when you feel like you can’t keep up? Try some of these tips and tricks during your next meeting.

Commit to making at least one contribution during the next meeting

Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic expectations. If you never say a word during meetings, commit to making at least one contribution at the next one. This doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking or insightful comment. It could just be a question. The point is to get into the habit of saying something and building your confidence with small wins.

Review the meeting agenda in advance

Would you feel more confident by preparing your remarks in advance? Ask the meeting organizer to circulate a copy of the meeting’s agenda a few days to a week before. Prepare your remarks and rehearse them if you need to. This gives you the chance to find out the proper pronunciation of words you feel self-conscious saying and practice your delivery to ensure your communication is clear.

Smile and make eye contact while presenting

We tend to mimic the behavior and feelings of others. If someone is monotone and low-energy when they speak, we tend to feel low-energy as well and feel that what they’re saying is boring.

On the other hand, when we’re upbeat and enthusiastic, a listener feels upbeat and enthusiastic, too. This is why audiences leave speeches by charismatic politicians or concerts with talented musicians feeling energized.

Smile, vary your tone, and make eye contact while presenting to keep your audience of 3, 30, or 300 engaged.

2.) Maintaining your composure during high-pressure public speaking situations

Do you get easily frazzled while speaking in front of people? Perhaps you get very self-conscious about your accent when someone asks you to repeat a point. Maybe you lose your train of thought when you forget a specific word in English. Here are a few ways to combat these sudden bouts of anxiety when you’re giving a presentation.

Remember that the audience doesn’t notice most mistakes

The audience doesn’t know what’s written on your sheet of paper. A group of colleagues at a meeting don’t know what you originally intended to say. If you miss a line or you forget a point, continue speaking and circle back later.

Speak slower than you think you need to

This is a good public speaking tip for both native and non-native English speakers.

We tend to speak faster when we’re presenting, and this is even true of non-native English speakers. NNE speakers in professional environments usually have a technical, comprehensive understanding of the English language, and it’s only their accent or pronunciation that presents a challenge when communicating. A slower pace can help you communicate your point more clearly to your audience and make you feel more relaxed while presenting as well.

Count to five to compose yourself

During a presentation, even a second of silence feels like an eternity. When you lose your place, the stress of silence can spiral into panic and before you know it, you can barely remember what the topic of your presentation was, let alone what line you were on.

Whenever you lose your place in your notes, calm yourself down by mentally counting to five while you scan your sheet. Chances are you’ll find your place before you reach three. Counting helps you avoid staring at your sheet in panic and instead focuses your mind to pick up where you left off.

The good news is that most audiences are pretty patient and want you to succeed. It’s almost guaranteed that they will give you the few seconds you need.

3.) Being heard during a phone conference

Tech issues coupled with the overlapping voices of multiple participants make phone conferences a tremendous pain. The communication issues of phone conferences are even more stressful for non-native English speakers who already feel anxiety about public speaking. Here’s what you can do the next time you’re handling a conference call.

Enunciate your words carefully

It’s often hard to hear participants during a conference call. Speak slowly and deliberately so that participants do not miss a word you are saying.

Practice the art of interruption

Most people were taught that it’s rude to interrupt, and for the most part this is true. But in a competitive environment it’s good to learn the art of interruption, especially when you’re dealing with dominant personalities who do most of the talking during conference calls.

Look for pauses in the conversation to politely introduce your point with phrases like, “And if I may add…” or “I’d like to also point out…”

And don’t shy away from re-introducing yourself before you speak. When there are multiple participants on a line, it can be confusing to know who exactly is speaking, especially if the speaker is not very well known or rarely speaks. Simply saying, “Katrina here. Just wanted to add that if you look at page 5…”

Just make sure what you have to say is worth the interruption!

Set the listener up for success

If this is a call with a customer or client, go out of your way to make them comfortable. Encourage them to let you know if they didn’t hear something clearly.

People often avoid asking non-native English speakers to repeat themselves out of politeness, but if they have trouble understanding you they may simply avoid interacting with you, negatively impacting your sales or customer relationships. At the same time, you shouldn’t have to constantly apologize for your accent. Just let the participant know at the beginning of the call that they can jump in at any time with questions or requests for clarification. And when they do ask for clarification, slow down or enunciate your words. And when they undoubtedly apologize for asking you to repeat themselves, be sure to let them know that it’s not a problem.

4.) Expressing your ideas clearly in informal settings

Opportunities to shine often pop up randomly or in informal settings. Your manager might ask for your thoughts about the project plan in the elevator or a colleague might ask for your input about a presentation when they run into you in the kitchen.

How can you express your ideas in informal settings when there isn’t an opportunity to rehearse?

Embrace silence and collect your thoughts

Take a moment to think about the question. A quick answer isn’t necessarily a smart answer. Just be sure to acknowledge that you’ve heard the question so the person doesn’t think you’re ignoring them. This is as simple as a quick, “Hm, let me think…”

If you really have nothing to say yet, tell the person you’ll get back to them once you’ve had time to think about it. If you want to continue the conversation, flip the question back to them and ask for their thoughts.

Share your ideas even if they are not fully developed yet

An idea does not need to come with a full implementation plan. If someone asks you for your opinion or someone requests your input on the spot and you have a great idea, don’t kill your idea out of fear that you don’t have all the answers. Express it and if people ask questions, honestly say that you need some time to flesh it out.

By overanalyzing your ideas, you run the risk of someone else thinking of it and saying it out loud before you do.

5.) What to do when you don’t know what someone said

Non-native English speakers often feign understanding. This is out of fear that people will interpret their request for clarification as a lack of competence. Unfortunately, faking understanding only leads to more misunderstandings which can hold you back.

Ask the person to repeat themselves

If you didn’t understand everything someone said, kindly ask them to repeat themselves. You don’t have to admit that you didn’t understand. You can simply say, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that…”

That said, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to admit that you don’t know the meaning of something. Native English speakers sometimes use slang or colloquialisms that fluent English speakers wouldn’t understand either. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification about an idiom or an expression. The more you do this, the faster you’ll pick them up.

And if you’re still feeling self-conscious, remember this: native English speakers are oftentimes the worst communicators given their tendency to use slang, acronyms, and other non-universal English language terms. Give yourself more credit.

If you are a non-native English speaker, don’t let self-consciousness or fear hold you back. It is 100% possible for you to be your vibrant, confident self to thrive in an English language workplace and advance in your career.

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