Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London
Talking over the phone can be hard enough when you cannot analyze the body language; but what is it like when you have a difficult time understanding English? The stress, frustration and feelings of helplessness can be magnified, unless you have a patient person on the other end of the line who is willing to go the extra mile to be attentive.
Sometimes both “fluency” and “accent” can create barriers over the telephone. In the first case the person may have an inadequate vocabulary to express themselves and in the latter they may have an accent but be very fluent. Quite frequently, you will get both an issue of fluency as well as accent.
Eliminate distractions like background noise.
In any case, when you are dealing with someone over the phone that you cannot understand you will need to eliminate as many distractions as possible where you are and where they are. This call will require a lot more out of you so you will have to “hyper-focus” on what the person is saying. If you have any background noise where you are, move to another spot to take the call. If the noise is coming from the other person’s place say: “I am sorry, but I am having a hard time hearing you. I hear noises and I cannot hear you very well. Would you please move to an area which is quieter?” Usually this works, or if they cannot move to a quieter place they will call you back when things have settled. Or you may find that you have to make the best out of communicating with background noise.
Remember to speak slowly.
While you are speaking the other person may be trying to translate what you are saying in their head. They could also be trying to write things down. It takes time to make the mental transition, so give them time. Even though you are speaking slowly, try not to be patronizing, people can tell when they are being disrespected even over the phone. Just because someone has a language barrier doesn’t mean they lack intelligence.
Speak at a normal volume.
It always surprises me that when we are faced with language barriers there seems to be an almost automatic response to speak more loudly. That doesn’t work, and could actually backfire on the phone making the other person agitated.
Speak in short sentences.
If you speak in short sentences you will likely pause more and speak more slowly. This will help the other person interpret what you are saying more easily.
If you are sloppy with your enunciation, this is the time to speak very clearly. Make your consonants shine! It is easy to say: “Whad’ya wanna do?”; But it will be hard to understand. Instead you will want to say: “What would you like to do?”
Get rid of the jargon.
Choose words carefully. But also remember that abbreviations, acronyms and others can be very culturally specific and confusing. Say the whole word and not a short version of it.
Take the call in steps.
Sometimes people will ramble on especially if they are emotional. You may find that they are giving you lots of information and you are feeling overwhelmed. If you can find a break in the conversation say something like this: “Can we stop here for a moment? I would like to make sure that I understand what you are asking?” Repeat what you believe you have heard and clarify. What you are doing is paraphrasing what was said. This allows you to check in every so often to make sure that you understand before you ask the caller to continue with what they are trying to communicate. It also shows your caller that you are interested in his/her message because you are checking the message. If you have only understood part of the message than you can ask more questions to obtain the information that you need.
If you think that the person on the other end of the line does not understand what you are saying, instead of repeating what you said in the same way, try different combinations of words or descriptions. I usually find that this helps. Similarly, if you don’t understand what the other person is saying on the other end of the line you can say: “I am sorry but I do not understand, could you explain this again to me in a different way?”
In the worse case scenario, when you don’t think you are getting through and if a face-to-face meeting is impossible you may want to get another person involved who is familiar with one of the languages. It could be someone that you work with or alternatively, you could ask the caller if he/she can have a friend or family member call you back that you can speak to.
It is important at all times to convey to the person with the English language barrier that you want to help them and want to give them good service. For most English as a Second Language Speakers they find the telephone to be a huge barrier and communication can be very stressful. Having a patient person on the other end of the line, who is willing to go slowly with them, and communicates a sincere interest in wanting to help them, goes a long way in making the call smoother for everyone involved.