Your ability to communicate internationally depends on your language skills. It seems like an obvious statement, but what happens when you try to break it down?
I had this discussion recently with two professionals who work internationally. Robert is a native English speaker from London who was here to visit his client, Wolfgang. Robert felt that he could communicate with anyone because most people speak English to one degree or another. Wolfgang, based in Frankfurt, felt that he faced many obstacles communicating in English.
To begin, I asked Wolfgang if communication between the two of them was always clear. He nervously answered, ‘not always’. When I asked Robert, he gave the same answer. They both looked at each other sheepishly. The truth was out!
Communicating the Miscommunication
When we dug deeper in this new insight, Robert said that Wolfgang sometimes uses words that don’t really fit the situation, but that he could usually decipher what Wolfgang was getting at. He also felt that Wolfgang was very direct, and that sometimes, more context or a less direct approach to a topic might be helpful.
Wolfgang said he was challenged by the speed of Robert’s delivery, because he often needed to take a moment to process what Robert had said. He also said it was difficult to read between the lines and interpret some expressions because they don’t always translate well, or at all, into German.
Both Robert and Wolfgang agreed that there was a great deal of personal interpretation going on ‘behind the scenes’. This interpretation had led to negative unintended consequences on one or two occasions, including ineffective and costly use of time and resources.
What followed next was an interesting negotiation on how Robert and Wolfgang would communicate in future, a Communication Code that included these guidelines:
1. Use plain English
Plain English means:
- using clear, straightforward words and expressions;
- using just enough words to get your messages across;
- removing redundant words and phrases, and those that don’t add value;
- choosing common vocabulary rather than words that require a dictionary.
Using plain English doesn’t mean taking your language down to a 5-year-old level, but it does embody the KISS concept.
2. Be as specific as possible
Use specifics like ‘in four cases’ rather than ‘in some cases’. Avoid overly long descriptions using vague language, and use the right vocabulary for the right concept.
3. Actively clarify meaning
Avoid misunderstandings by getting clarification. In the end, the misunderstandings will cost more than the potential embarrassment of asking what someone really means. Use simple clarifying statements and questions to help avoid these misunderstandings and possible assumptions.
- Statements like: ‘I’m not sure I understand’ and ‘What I mean is …’
- Questions like: ‘What do you mean by that?’ and ‘Are you saying …?’
4. Confirm understanding
This simple technique will ensure that you and your business partner end every discussion with the same understanding.
- ‘So we agree we need a solution that will …’
- ‘You are going to …, and I am going to …’
5. Develop a supportive communication environment
Now that they had identified the challenges in communicating with each other, it was easy for Robert and Wolfgang to agree on how to develop a supportive communication environment.
- Robert promised to focus on using plain English and using fewer idiomatic and colloquial expressions. He also agreed to speak a bit slower and chunk his messages so that Wolfgang can process them easier.
- Wolfgang agreed to give more context around his comments and suggestions and will consider the impact of being direct in sensitive situations that may require more diplomacy. He has also set himself a goal of expanding his vocabulary.
A Strategy to Build Upon
In the end, Robert and Wolfgang both agreed that when they have the same understanding of the situation, they are more productive and achieve even better results together. Robert and Wolfgang also agreed to let each other know when they feel like they’re slipping into old habits.
How do your language skills shape up when you are working with international business partners? Share one experience that surprised you.
P.S. Need more advice for improving your international communication skills? Check out these articles:
- 10 Techniques for Presenting Successfully to International Audiences
- 5 Characteristics of a Communication Superhero: How Do You Measure Up?
- Are You Making the Same Mistake I Made?