How to Stop Seeing Yourself and Your English as The Problem
I am the problem.
If my international colleagues don’t understand the point I’ve just made.
If they look confused but stay silent.
If I don’t understand my British colleague’s joke.
If I don’t understand some of their expressions.
If I have to ask them to repeat because they speak too fast.
If I don’t achieve my objective in the meeting.
If I don’t have enough vocabulary.
The list of everything that is ‘wrong’ with you is endless. The responsibility to be fluent in English is a heavy burden to bear. But bear it you must (you believe).
You blame yourself for any misunderstanding or miscommunication that arises. I know I do when I communicate in Italian.
➜ It’s me who should make myself clear.
➜ It’s me who should understand.
➜ It’s me who should have the right vocabulary.
➜ It’s me who should apologise for making mistakes.
➜ It’s me who should understand that joke.
➜ It’s me who should feel humble.
If you always feel you’re the problem when there’s a misunderstanding or miscommunication in English, you’ll never regain your confidence. You’ll always feel like an outsider which is lonely.
Of course, you can sign up for fluency courses, grammar workshops and vocabulary challenges but they won’t change how you see yourself.
Because speaking fluent, grammar-perfect and wordy English might make you briefly feel good but they are only tools.
They’re like the tools in your IKEA flatpack that’s missing the instruction manual. You have all these shiny tools but you don’t know how to use them to build that office desk you saw in the showroom. The one that looked so cool.
Without your instruction manual,
➜ You don’t know how to use your grammar tool to help you understand that joke.
➜ You don’t know how to use your newly-acquired but soon forgotten vocabulary to handle that difficult question.
➜ You don’t know how to use your fluency tool to help you understand your clients’ needs.
You can’t do this on your own. You need your instruction manual which, in your case, is your colleague, your client, your friend.
You need them to collaborate with you to achieve your shared goal. You need them to share the responsibility of communicating with you.
7 Daring Things You Could Do
Let’s take an objective look at the scenarios at the beginning of this post. By objective I mean take yourself (and your English) out of the equation. Then consider an alternative reason for the miscommunication and try something different.
Your point isn’t clear?
Some people need to hear a message more than once. Don’t assume it’s your fault.
Try this: Ask which part they didn’t understand and clarify the point for them.
They look confused?
It could be that your point was complex and needs elaborating or they weren’t listening in the first place. It does happen.
Try this: Acknowledge their look and ask them what they think about your point.
An unfamiliar joke?
Jokes are hard to understand especially if they’re culture-specific and we need to be aware of that.
Try this: Admit you don’t understand the joke and ask them to re-explain it. Or you could just ignore it, especially if the person is annoying!
A culture-specific expression?
Quite often people forget to whom they’re talking and assume everyone can understand them. It’s a natural mistake we all make. However, if we’re to communicate across cultures and effectively, we need to be aware of how we’re communicating. The key is not to make assumptions. You can help them become aware of this.
Try this: Gently remind them you’re unfamiliar with that expression (nor obliged to be) and ask them to explain it.
Ask to repeat because they’re a fast talker?
Some people don’t realise how fast they speak. It’s up to you to get them to slow down. Here’s what you could say without apologising first.
Try this: “My English is good but I understand better when people speak slowly. You were saying…?”
Take your English out of the picture.
Try this: Reflect on what truly happened in that meeting and ask yourself why you didn’t get what you wanted. Were you talking to the wrong people (not the decision-makers)? Was there insufficient information? Were you unprepared for questions? Did something unexpected occur? Keep probing.
Not enough vocabulary
Your default position. Now let’s look at your reality.
Try this: Think back. Did people tell you they couldn’t understand you? If they did, how did you respond? What was their reaction? When they asked questions, how did you respond? Did your answers satisfy them? When you struggled with words, how did you manage the situation?
Did you get what you wanted? If the answer is yes, why would you need more vocabulary? If the answer is no, go back and dig deep. If vocabulary was a real issue, how can you make what you already have more effective? Give examples, ask questions.
After reflecting together, my client who told me he was the problem has decided that in his next meeting which will include international and monolingual speakers of English, he will ask that all participants speak the English that everyone understands, International English.
The moment you accept that effective communication goes beyond words and demands collaboration, you’ll start seeing yourself not as the problem, but as the solution.