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    Welcome to Authentic Journeys - ഓതെന്റിക് ജെർനീയ്സ് - US-India Cross-Cultural Training

July 1, 2020

Mistakes US Clients Make on Conference Calls and in Virtual Meetings (With Solutions)

I have provided coaching to over 3,500 professionals in India who work on virtual teams with US American counterparts or clients. Often, I am asked to help [Indian] team members to improve their business acumen and communication skills to perform better on daily status update calls, virtual meetings and presentations. In many cases, many assume the fault lies with the [team in India] because maybe they assume that they are not speaking clearly (their accent is not understood) or they aren't able to understand the US American English accent. While there are cases where the teams in India can upskill, there are areas where the US based team should be working on communicating with more clarity.

So, instead of always blaming yourself for miscommunication when working offshore, take a look at a few of the common problems I have noticed that US American citizens make while on conference calls, and possible ways you can navigate and overcome these situations. (These examples are derived from observing over 100 different types of virtual interactions over the years.) 

Problems and Solutions to Communication Problems in Virtual Calls & Meetings

Problem: Your Client Speaks in a Thick Accent, Uses Slangs or Idioms  
There are a wide variety of accents and uses of language in any country. Be it British English, Canadian English or US English, there are people who grow up in these countries who may not be able to understand all the accents within their own country. It's also true for India, as I have learned! In fact, recently I have learned that in the US some who hail from the southern states attend accent reduction programs to be better understood in the wider US audience. There have also been comedy shows over the years highlighting how some regional accents should be reduced to improve job prospects or understandability, as in this popular tv show

The lesson here is just because we all speak English, it doesn't mean we are all speaking the same language!

Regardless of talking to someone in the same language in our own country or in another country, we should always keep in mind that the speed of our speech, phrases or idioms or other cultural uses of languages may not be understood in the same way (in spoken or written forms). 

Problem: Speaking Too Fast 
We are not asking anyone to speak like a robot, but we are hoping that people can speak at a pace so that people from other areas of the country or world can understand with more clarity. Often there are conference calls with international participants from more than two countries, some of those participants speak English as their first and only language, and some do not. 

Solutions to Apply

We can always take care to speak in a more global way- in a plain version of the language, without many localisms, slangs, or jargon (including technical or professional jargon when talking to someone new to our outside of our industry). We should try to speak slow, but not like a robot. We should learn how to inflect our speech to sound natural and not rehearsed.

If you hear a word you do not know, and do not want to ask directly about the meaning, don't forget to keep listening. Listen to the entire context and then try to respond (even native speakers may not know the meaning to every word they hear) or ask for clarity on that word is not understood by paraphrasing and asking a clarifying question. For example: 

So far I understand that we must continue to handle the tickets as they come in. We have Aseem on the day shift and Dhruv on the evening shift. Is this what is referred to when using the term rota

In fact, these are good conversational exercises you can use to practice when learning and using new vocabulary. I often use this in fluency coaching with good outcomes.

Problem: Speaking in Long, Complex Sentences 
The most complex thing in the world is to simplify things. When one person speaks for longer than 4 or 5 minutes on a call in long, winding sentences (longer than 12-15 words, using filler words or connector words), listeners will tune out and get bored or get tired from listening. Listening is an active activity, and for non-native speakers can be even more taxing. And, on the phone, all we have to go by is voice. With an absence of non-verbal in-person cues, listening can be twice as taxing for your participants on the phone. 

Solutions to Apply
It probably won't be a good idea to ask people to speak in shorter sentences. Firstly, if we take this solution upon ourselves, it could be possibly mirrored by our client over time. But, meanwhile, again the best solution you can apply is careful listening and paraphrasing where you aren't clear.

When people speak in long sentences (or write), the grammar gets confused and the main topics or ideas get muddled in a sea of words. If your US counterpart talks in long sentences or tends to talk for a long time before giving you a chance to speak, have a pad and paper nearby to take notes. Do not write out every single thing he or she says, but write the main word/topic. Then, when it's your turn to talk, reflect back for clarity calling out main points.

This will be especially important IF and WHEN the client is requesting something sharing requirements for a new or ongoing project or sharing some other critical information. Just because someone is a native speaker (of any language) doesn't mean they speak clearly even with other native speakers, let alone a non-native or non-regional speaker. Hence, as the person listening it will be your responsibility to make sense of what they are trying to say. Also, in observing client calls, another thing I have noticed is that some clients continue talking simply because when they have paused to give the India team a chance to respond, the India team is silent. Try to be aware of pauses to insert your thoughts at the appropriate time.

Problem: Not Testing the Equipment or Understanding of Acoustics 
Just recently I overheard a conference call where an English native speaker was speaking on a conference call. To me, it clearly sounded as if she was using a speaker phone that was sitting on a desk, possibly sitting in a room with other people and sitting far from the speakerphone. It sounded as if she were in a tunnel. She did not know how to project her voice properly, and it was hard for international participants to hear. What complicated things is that native speakers from other countries did understand her (maybe they have known each other longer, and understood each other's tones and pitches better), so those who were not non-native speakers could not understand what she asked. 

Problem: Bending into the Call 
When a person doesn't have good posture or breath, they will not sound clear and may speak too fast. I have heard this on quite a few calls, too. Possibly, a person who has not been participating in the call for ten or fifteen minutes has been asked to participate and is now bending into the table speaks. Now they will not sound clear as they are constricting the air in their abdomen or their neck. This will impact clear communication. 

Solutions to Apply 

As we do not have control over our client's technical gadgetry, it will be our responsibility to manage our own gadgetry and our own posture. Possibly, another approach would be to know the ins and out of the technical specifications of the platform we are using. If you are well versed in the digital online platform or phone calling technology, you may be able to provide 'technical support' to your client to assure they are audible or their equipment (such as mic or video) may be working properly.

If not working from the office, it may be tempting to take a call while relaxing on the couch or bed. This will not be a good idea if you need to be heard clearly. Lounging and having bad posture makes your voice not as clear as if you are sitting up straight with a straight neck. If you don't believe me, jump on a call with me and turn off your video. Talk sitting or laying in different positions, most of the time I can tell when you are bending your neck or lounging. It doesn't sound professional, and will sound as if you are casual or not serious.

As we wrap up this article, just keep in mind the if you are blaming yourself for the miscommunication in your global client interactions, it's not always your fault. Though there may be things we can always do to improve our own approach and communication, our clients or colleagues are not perfect either. I hope this article has given you some insight into that as well as some ideas to overcome some of the common problems.

If you work on a global team and face these situations, Jennifer Kumar, the author of this blog, works with your teams on leadership and communication skills across international borders in virtual work environments. Contact her for more information

Related Posts: 
Tips for Webex, Phone or Virtual Presentations 

Original post date - July 1, 2015

Updated - July 1, 2020

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.