Countless articles tell us how to have effective meetings: how to start/finish on time, whether to stand or sit or walk, the ideal number of participants, and so on. However, most of these articles fail to address a much bigger (and, we think, more important) issue: how to encourage international employees to speak up in English-language meetings. What are you missing when key employees don’t contribute?
We asked our international clients why they don’t speak up in meetings. This is what they told us and what you can do about it.
Reason #1: They are not comfortable with American turn-taking rules.
Americans know they can’t always wait for a speaker to come to a full stop before jumping into a conversation. We look for cues such as the completion of an idea, falling intonation, or the end of a phrase. We see these as “gateways” into the conversation. Some international employees may not see these “gateways.” They may wait for their turn (which never comes) or may start to speak only to be interrupted by another speaker.
Try this: Since jumping into a conversation might be difficult for some employees, make it easier by directly asking the employees to speak. “Lee, it looked like you had something to add. Did you want to make a comment?” Or, “Ken, what are your thoughts on this?”
Reason #2: They need more time to comprehend before they respond.
Americans are impatient with even minute periods of silence. We ask a question and expect a response immediately. For international employees, this may present a challenge. They may just need a second or two to think before responding. Unfortunately, many Americans perceive this thinking time as an indication that they have nothing to say. That is often not the case.
Try this: If you’ve asked an international employee to respond to a question, give them five seconds to consider their answer. (It helps to count to five in your head.) Don’t allow anyone else to jump in before the individual has given a response.
Reason #3: They are not confident in their English ability (even though we think they are fluent).
We work with many international professionals who are quite competent and fluent in English but still struggle to express their ideas. The issue is often not language, but language confidence. If competent speakers lack confidence in their own skills, they may be hesitant to participate in group discussions.
Try this: If you have a brilliant employee who stays quiet in meetings even though they regularly express their ideas in one-to-one conversations, you can help by jumpstarting their comment. Once they begin speaking, they will build confidence and should have no trouble continuing. For example, you could say, “Anne, I think your group had some questions regarding the new deadline…can you tell us what your questions are?” By initiating the comment yourself, you are taking some of the pressure off the speaker to begin.
Bonus Tip: Another way to encourage employees to contribute during meetings is to provide them with the meeting details prior to the meeting. If they have some time to look at the content and gather their ideas and questions, they will be more likely to participate. (Of course, you should be doing this anyway…)