Development

When overseas teams cannot fully understand US colleagues

I joined a conference call this morning and was quite happy because I understood much more of what my U.S. colleague was saying than I have on other calls. One of my Chinese colleagues recorded the meeting so that we can play it back to avoid missing any important points. When I listened to this audio again, I found that there were still more than 10 sentences that I didn’t fully understand in this 10-minute exchange, so I asked other team members to clarify what we had heard. To my surprise, there were 7-8 sentences for which none of us understood the exact meaning. I turned to a colleague whose aural English is much better than mine. After his review, there were still 3-4 sentences that were unclear. Finally I ask for help from our Director, a native English speaker. This time all questions were clarified but we discovered another thing: some sentences that each of us thought we had heard were not the real sentence they spoke. It’s very lucky the misunderstanding did not impact the project this time, however, it’s really very dangerous!
So here we have two questions:

  1. Can you understand your US colleague’s or not?
  2. If not, what will you do?

For the first question, there are two kinds of situations; one is that you know you don’t understand, another one is you believe you understand but it is not the case. There are several ways to find this situation:

  1. Repeat what you heard in your words and verify it with the original speaker.
  2. Even you believe you understood every word, you still need ask yourself whether you know the meaning of the sentence. Try to find out why each word appears where it does under the context.
  3. Discuss with other team members what you heard in the meeting and find out any inconsistent places.

For the second question, one possible solution is when you find you cannot understand, stop the speaker; beg their pardon and ask them to speak slower. Speaking our requires great courage because you might worry that if the US colleague speak slower they may feel unnatural, especially when there are several native speakers in the meeting. In these cases they often begin talking freely and fluently faster and faster. At the same time the non-native speakers feel more and more frustrated. You may also think that another local team member can understand it, and interrupting the native-speaking colleague will be a waste of time and not polite.

My suggested solutions are:

  1. Record the meeting and ask your other team members where you don’t understand, after one to times you will soon meet agreement whether and when you should ask your US colleague to speak more slowly during subsequent calls.
  2. Let your U.S. colleague know there you’re having a problem understand him. It is not realistic that our listening skills will improve radically in a very short time, so the only option is asking our U.S colleague slow down. Once I joined a meeting with some U.S. colleagues and the American PM typed every key word he spoke into the instant messaging tool while he was speaking. It was a very comfortable experience for me and I appreciated his patience.
  3. According to the different situation, you can decide whether stop your U.S. colleague, beg their pardon and ask them to clarify the points with him after meeting. Our you might send the meeting notes to your U.S. colleague to assure you have captured and understood all of the key points.

All in all in an agile environment we believe in individuals and interactions over process and tools. Communication and understanding is always one of the essential pillars of our methodology. Have you ever met or is also experiencing the same problem? I am eager to hear your ideas and how you deal with it.

Thoughts on “When overseas teams cannot fully understand US colleagues”

  1. Ethan Huang (Hangzhou, China)

    Ha, this is really interesting experience, and I like your suggestions.

  2. Abel, It’s good to see the experience from the other side of the table. I agree that good communication is key. Everyone needs to know if something is not understood……..even those of us in the United States miss important points because we weren’t listening well enough.

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