Why Asking for Help Means You’re a Confident Communicator in English
In your mind, it shouts unprofessional, inexperienced and worse, not in command of your subject.
Or it could say, I know what I need to do to communicate confidently in English.
Let me tell you a story
Earlier this year, I had to go to Milan urgently to take care of my mother who became seriously unwell in the shortest of times. I took over from my sister who did a phenomenal job arranging the medical programme for Mum. I stayed a total of 5 weeks.
On the plane over, I was a bag of nerves thinking about all the things I would need to organise. Things like continuing the round of hospital appointments, dealing with the bank, reviewing and updating insurance, organising a care programme, applying for invalidity allowance and so on.
Everything that shouted out ‘bureaucracy’ with its ridiculously complex language. In Italian!! Now I am a fluent Italian speaker in that I can comfortably converse with anyone and I don’t struggle understanding people (unless they speak super fast and use dialect).
But this was something else.
How on earth was I going to do this? How was I going to explain myself to the consultant, make myself clear with the person at the bank or understand others without making myself look like a garbling idiot?
I didn’t have the necessary formal vocabulary which is typical of Italian bureaucracy, I made grammar mistakes, some people spoke too fast for me to understand them and I was scared to ask people to repeat lest I irritate them.
💥 Breaking news: I have exactly the same fears as you.
The fear that if I don’t speak flawless, fluent Italian, people won’t see me for who I am. An intelligent and articulate person.
Then I thought to myself, I had a job to get done. I didn’t have the luxury of walking away. This meant that I would need others to collaborate with me. And collaborate they would!
So armed with my more than good enough Italian, I ventured out into the world of bureaucracy. It was confusing, scary, mind-bogglingly complex, but I did it.
Here’s what I did
☘️ When I struggled to find the right words, I didn’t apologise. I’d say,” I don’t know the word in Italian but what I need is…” and give them an example.
☘️ When I wasn’t sure if I had used the correct word in an email, I wouldn’t apologise at the end of the email. I would write in brackets after the word/phrase “Is this how you say it in Italian?” They might respond or they might not but it didn’t matter because the message I wanted to share was this: “Italian isn’t my first language which means I won’t always get it right but I am proud of my efforts and willing to learn.”
☘️ When trying to understand a complex diagnosis, I repeated back what I’d understood and waited for the consultant to correct or confirm.
☘️ When applying for the invalidity allowance, I told them that I wasn’t familiar with the system and could they walk me through each step again.
☘️ When the most unhelpful telephone operator rattled off a series of steps at lightning speed, I told her that I was going to write everything down which forced her to drop her pace.
☘️ When I couldn’t understand the Local Government’s website, I asked for help from my Italian client/friends who made things less terrifying.
After 5 weeks, I had re-organised Mum’s financial affairs, rearranged her house insurance, secured a care plan, interacted with a gazillion medical professionals and applied for her invalidity allowance.
Not bad for someone who thought she would sink with her ‘bad’ Italian.
The moral of this story?
It may not be ‘perfect’ but never doubt your English. Focus on your goal, decide what you need to achieve it, create a plan and ask others to collaborate with you to realise that goal.
Never apologise because you have nothing for which to apologise. Celebrate the fact that this language you’re using is your second or third language and what that says about your abilities and courage to step out of your comfort zone.
Focus on communicating the best way you can – giving examples, asking clarifying questions, asking people to slow down, asking them to paraphrase or explain a word they’ve used that is unfamiliar, encouraging them to collaborate with you.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to never be afraid to ask for help.
Asking for help says that I recognise my Italian isn’t perfect and that’s ok because I know I can always count on the other person to help me. Because contrary to what you think, people want to help. Involve them and you will be ok.
PS: I moved to Italy in June and I am so grateful for the experience I lived earlier this year because had I not, my move would have been excruciating.