Meeting participation is one of the most challenging forms of communication for English as Second Language (ESL) speakers in the consulting world. When collaboration and idea promotion have become the hallmarks of how many consulting organizations conduct business, to NOT do so is frowned upon. (Check out what the Boston Consulting Group and L.E.K. Consulting say on this topic to prospective hires.) As employees, you are encouraged to “speak up” and “speak out”, sharing ideas generously and as is edifying toward helping clients solve complex cases. This is what clients are hiring you for, after all.
But saying and doing are different things entirely, and group settings can be downright intimidating or confusing to ESL speakers. This is especially true when it comes to contributing, leading, interjecting, and so forth.
If you are an ESL speaker, the following areas hopefully provide a good starting point to engage more meaningfully, and tactfully, at in person meetings:
1. Hand gestures: Where are your hands and what are they doing? Are they under a table (bad) or resting on top (good)? Hands should be free to gesture and interject at a rapid-fire moment. If colleagues are having a hard time hearing you, make it easier for them to see you. Some forms of interjection can be seen when a person stretches their hand out toward the middle of the table (they’re about to make a point), or they extend an open hand, palm down gesture pointing toward the last, or current, speaker. In this last case, they may be trying to finish a point and thwarting someone else’s attempt to interrupt (down boy!). While gestures deserve a blog post on their own, for now it will help to remember: hands above the table; fast hand movement signals a desire to interrupt and can grab attention.
2. Body posture: Are you leaning into the table so you are literally squeezed in there? (bad) Are you slouching? (bad) A straight, leaning-forward posture shows that you’re on board. This posture also physically gives you advantage when you want to make a point, as you are closer to the center of the table. Slouching, off-balance, or leaning postures suggest nervousness, lack of confidence, or insecurity. Try examining your seating (and standing) postures in front of a mirror and find what is most comfortable for you.
3. Detecting lulls: This is truly difficult, but it CAN be done. A lull in the conversation may be rare, particularly if there are a few avid speakers in the group who love to share their ideas. It’s likely there may not be more than one or two thirds of a second free in between sentences. Once you do find it, it’s prime time to jump in with your ideas. We recommend checking out Tom Ashbrook with NPR’s On Point–he has mastered the art of finding “the lull” and interrupting tactfully.
Notice how subtle and nuanced these strategies can be! There has been no mention of actual verbal communication technique (or grammar!) at this point yet. And as you can see, “saying” and “doing” are quite different; the “language of meetings” presents some fairly unique obstacles to the ESL speaker.
In our next post, we want to tell you about other ways to make your voice, and presence known, at meetings. We’ll talk about: Making well with the time, Taking advantage of follow up communications, Appearing comfortable, and Taking on new roles.
Did this answer a burning question? Do you have another burning question? Do let us know how we can help by dropping us an e-mail here. And stay tuned for more tips on meeting engagement in the next post!