Huh? Addressing the Challenge of Heavy Accents

Posted on Monday, August 18, 2014

When I tell people I help non-native English speakers to become better communicators, I often get this response -- “There’s this guy I work with … How do I tell him I can’t understand him without insulting him, or coming across as condescending?”  

Communication Breakdown
People often won’t say anything about a heavy accent because they think it’s too sensitive a topic and that nothing can be done about it.  A listener might get frustrated or annoyed, and walks away with very little from the conversation.  They might even avoid the accented speaker altogether.  Salespeople who work with global team members have confessed to me that they don’t pick up the phone from the non-native speaker until they absolutely must.  Unfortunately, the speaker often has no idea they aren’t being understood.  Instead, they just feel shut out.  

Fluency Equals Credibility
Cognitive Fluency is the brain’s ability to process stimuli.  Naturally, we all prefer to work with stimuli that are easy to process, but heavy accents make it more challenging by reducing cognitive fluency.  What’s the impact?  An experiment designed by two psychologists at the University of Chicago revealed very dramatically how accented speech affects interpersonal relations. In their 2010 study, the researchers asked listeners to judge the credibility of statements recited by native English speakers and by non-native English speakers from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The majority of listeners said statements provided by heavily-accented speakers were less credible than those recited by mildly accented or native speakers. Even when the listeners were told the research was assessing credibility in relation to accents and the speakers were just reading random statements, the subjects still reported that the further away from native speech, the less credible they found the speaker.  Just imagine the implications of that thinking on a career, in a courtroom, etc.

Start with Respect
So how do you approach this sensitive topic in the workplace?  The truth is, you can say almost anything if you say it nicely and with respect. It’s all in the delivery. Address the challenge in a private conversation. Smile, be respectful, and be careful not to communicate annoyance or ridicule. You could say, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t get that, and I’d really like to understand what you said. Would you mind repeating it for me, perhaps a little slower this time?” If you’re the speaker’s manager or supervisor, focus on the fact that you want to help him or her move forward in the organization and your intent is not to criticize or reproach them.

It’s Professional, Not Personal
Keep in mind that people are tougher than we think. They want to succeed. It takes a lot of courage to leave your home and your culture and go to work in another country. Accents can be a distraction, making it harder for others to recognize talent, expertise, and valuable insights. Creativity and skill can go unrewarded. The employee loses out, and the organization loses out. Yet management professionals often dance around this issue like it’s a house on fire -- because they see a problem and are at a loss for a solution. But like a fire, ignoring this problem won't make it go away -- it will only get worse.  The bottom line?  Saying absolutely nothing is a disservice to both the listener and speaker, leading to continued communication breakdown.  It also cripples the critical relationship building tools that move conversations and ultimately organizations forward.

Everyone Benefits
Accents will improve when the speaker has the right feedback and guidance.  Find a communications coach in your area, if possible, who addresses these challenges.  It will take time, patience, and practice. But everyone will benefit. The speaker gains valuable communication skills that will help advance his or her career. The organization gains a more effective employee.   Don't walk away, thinking nothing can be done.

The world is a richly laid out and colorful tapestry, and organizations are microcosms of the same.  It’s all about bridging the gap of understanding through patience, support, and respect.