Do you feel tongue-tied in English (as your second or other language)?
I’d like to share a case study from a client (working professional in late 40s – Team Lead of a Dev Team) I was working with just today. This is AMAZING.
Me (Coach): What is one of the communication challenges you face?
Team Lead (Client): When someone talks, I am always worried about what I will say. I feel I am not listening.
Me: How would you like to see this change?
Team Lead: I wish I did not have to worry about what I want to say. I get worried I will lose my words. Maybe that’s why I do this? I started learning English after college in my home country and have been living here ever since. I need more confidence.
Me: How can you build your confidence?
Team Lead: The main thing is I have to listen. But I am always worried that I miss something. So when the person stops talking, I always ask them to repeat.
Me: How does that feel?
Team Lead: I don’t feel good. I may feel that my colleagues don’t think I am good at English because I am always asking them to repeat.
Me: Can I suggest a different approach?
Team Lead: Yes
Me: Would you be interested to do an exercise on paraphrasing? I will tell you a story for about 3-4 minutes, and you can respond by starting, “If I understand you correctly…” then say 3-4 sentences to summarize what I have said.
Team Lead: Yes, let’s try.
Me: (I told a story for 3-4 minutes)
Team Lead: “If I understand you correctly….” she stopped talking and got frustrated. She was silent for a minute.
Me: Share with me what happened.
Team Lead: I did listen to you for the first sentence, but then I went into my head and started thinking what to respond. By the time you finished, I couldn’t paraphrase because I wasn’t listening. But, also I couldn’t respond with anything because I didn’t listen to you. I got embarrassed and shut down.
Me: Your English is really good and clear. So, I think language is not your problem, but listening seems to be where you struggle. I’m paraphrasing my observation here. Is that true?
Team Lead: Yes. I also feel I am always worried about the future, what to do or say next. I want to sound good, articulate and smart. But, since I am not in the moment, I lose the future and the response, too. I should really concentrate on my listener so that I can respond clearly and appropriately.
Me: You have answered your own question. [I paused. She looked a bit shocked and relieved.] Shall we try the same exercise again?
Team Lead: Yes
Me: Keep in mind after you paraphrase to ask a question or offer an observation to keep the conversation going.
[Pause – She took notes.]
Me: I will tell you a slightly different story. [I told a different story for 3-4 minutes.]
[During this time, the client really listened intently with good body language. I could tell she was really paying attention.]
Team Lead: “If I understood you correctly….” [She paraphrased appropriately, though she did get stuck once or twice and repeated a few place names or people’s names incorrectly.] … Your story is very interesting because I experienced the same thing once… [She went on for one or two sentences…]
We debriefed the session up to this point following this. She had asked me if she paraphrased correctly. I did note there were one or two mistakes, but that would be natural even for a native speaker as I used some place names or people’s names that may not be familiar to everyone. Then, I asked:
Me: If you could compare the first try to the second try, what would you say?
Team Lead: Well… in the second attempt, I really listened with more awareness. I feel I was in the moment.
Me: I could tell the difference. too. Your body language was different. You were leaning in to me, and your eyes were looking at me. The first time, your eyes looked as if you were worried about something.
Team Lead: Yes, that’s right!! Wow!! I was so worried I couldn’t respond to you and what to say. My heart started racing and I actually shut down and stopped listening to you, so when I had to talk I was absolutely silent.
Me: What do you think about this?
Team Lead: This happens to me at work here all the time. Sometimes whoever I am talking with looks at me and makes me think I don’t know English.. but I have been working in the USA for 20 years. I have earned my degree here. I have American English speaking friends. I hate it when this happens. I feel as if I lose all my progress in English in that moment. (She trails off….)
Me: What do you want to happen?
Team Lead: Well, as in relation to our exercise today, of course the second example.
Me: How did you feel different in the second example?
Team Lead: I actually thought I would not be successful… but I just was patient and stayed in the moment. I was so happy and relieved that I could paraphrase what you said AND continue the conversation. I felt very confident and relaxed. I want to feel like this all the time.
Me: That’s amazing! I am so happy for you and am here to support you. What would be the best way to support you? Or is there anyone else who can support you?
Team Lead: Thank you!! I hope I can continue to do this. I need to stop telling myself I can’t do it. I just did it right now! And, it’s so amazing! I do know I know English. I can have conversations. I am not sure who can support me as I am working here onsite, alone. My family is back home. But, in the office I have to really slow down and be patient with myself. Then, when we meet for classes, we can review the situations I faced. Do you know I have taken classes like this in the past…? I keep taking these classes, but I can’t move forward. But, I know English!!
Me: Yes, your English is really good!! It sounds like you’d also like to work on being in the moment, then only formulating your thoughts when it’s time to speak which could help you feel free to listen. Have I understood you correctly?
Team Lead: Yes!! And, I see there’s a new way to use the summary question – at the end rather than at the beginning like we practiced? Me: Yes, either way works well.
Team Lead: Will native speakers think I am not smart if I use this technique?
Me: Well maybe I can I turn the question around on you? When you aren’t listening, you mentioned you always ask someone to repeat. How do you feel others react to this?
Team Lead: Well….. I think they think I don’t really know English because I am asking to repeat all the time. They may also not want to talk with me thinking I will always ask to repeat. But I am able to actually understand them if I am patient and listen.
Me: You got it! Again, your insight has answered your own question. But, to answer your question from earlier, paraphrasing is a common communication technique in the US. Most good communicators in the US do it in daily conversations, meeting management and even facilitating training programs, as I remember you do this as well. This can help you to actually answer people’s questions when you don’t really know what they are trying to ask.
Team Lead: I have learned a lot today!! I have a lot to practice until the next time we meet.
Me: I am happy to hear that!
Within weeks of this strategic conversation, asking to repeat became pretty much a thing of the past!
[We wrapped up our session and scheduled our next meeting.]
As a reader of this blog, do you resonate with this story? Do you feel the same way as this permanent resident in the US?
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