The first rule of communicating in English is to understand what the goal of communication is. That goal, very simply is… ‘To understand and be understood’.
The second rule of communication comes into play the moment you realize that you are not succeeding with the first rule. If you are communicating in English and you recognize that you do not understand, and/or are not being understood, you must apply the second rule. You must ‘Take Action’. By ‘action’, I mean; speak, use body language, use facial expressions, draw a picture. You must take any action that will get the attention of your partners and show them that you do not understand them or that they have not understood you. Their goal is likely to be the same as yours and as such, once they know you do not understand, they should take action to support you.
This second rule, while simple, is often difficult for Japanese to accept and use. It tends to be in contrast to the standard Japanese educational style, which generally is rather passive and reactive. In the past, most Japanese ‘studied’ English at school for years, but with very little chance to actually speak it. The focus was on grammar, writing, and literal translations. As a result, Japanese learners of English have tended to focus too much energy and time on trying to speak with perfect grammatical accuracy, rather than on actually communicating their ideas or opinions. Many were and still are hesitant to speak up with their less-than-perfect English, as making errors can lead to embarrassment in front of others. The result? More hesitation and silence. It is this silence that really frustrates western colleagues.
To communicate successfully in English, you do not have to be a ‘perfect’ speaker. Of course, you should always be trying to improve, but don’t make perfection your goal and don’t make a lack of perfection a reason not to speak. To understand and be understood, should always be the goal. To achieve this, you must speak.
My advice is to speak now with whatever limited communication ability you have. If you are embarrassed, I understand, but for your own sake, you must ‘get over it’. If you want to play golf, learn to swim or master a language, at some stage you have to stop reading about it, and start doing it. By taking action to understand and be understood, your global colleagues will be pleased and supportive. Also, if you continue in this way, over time, your English ability will get better too.
Jeff O’Dea supports Japanese staff working in global companies to develop the growth mindset needed to communicate more effectively in English. With his group training and personalized coaching, staff can improve their communication skills, reduce their hesitation, unlock their potential to speak up, and add value to their English interactions. In the process, they can also then add value to their colleagues, their team, and their company.
See more of Jeff's insights and articles, in English and Japanese, on his LinkedIn site.