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10 tips for communicating with non-native colleagues

Communicating successfully with non-native colleagues requires more than just speaking slow-ly and clear-ly. Sunita Sehmi shares 10 tips for productive interaction with other nationalities
Speak global: be patient, considerate and informed on different communication styles
Sean Sims

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Avoid at all costs slang, jargon and abbreviations

Be empathetic

While we all may "speak the same language" in a multilingual context, we may not necessarily "speak the same way", so put yourself in your non-native colleague's shoes and identify how tough it is to be effective communicators when presenting, or participating in conference calls and meetings. It's hard enough in our mother tongue to be effective communicators and without doubt it's an added pressure for non-natives in a competitive business environment. 

Be interested in the listener

Don't just focus on your message, but think about what your audience is hearing. Gauge your message according to your listeners and be creative. 

Patience pays

Be respectful and tolerant. Always bear in mind that for some non-natives your language could be their second, third or fourth language. Sensitivity will help you to connect with your non-native colleagues.

Put your cards on the table

Use collective experiences to establish common ground. Perhaps you have struggled in a presentation or a meeting in another language. Demonstrate to your colleagues that you understand and recognise that it is not always straightforward to operate in a foreign language.

Be straightforward

Think about your personal use of metaphors and idioms and colloquiums. Try to avoid at all costs slang, jargon and abbreviations. Think how this could be interpreted in the non-native's own language and how this could impede their process of meaning and its significance.

Be informed

Read up about the people in your team and where they come from. People have different cultural communication styles and cultural attitudes towards hierarchy and conflict and it is important to be aware of these prior to negotiations and meetings.

Mirror, mirror

Adapt, modify and match communication styles with your audience. Building rapport is an essential ingredient in successful cross-cultural communication.

Be aware of all the cultures in the room

The influence of one's own cultural identity, the collective cultures, the national culture and corporate culture of the organisation all play significant roles in impacting communication and this is vital to remember when working with non-natives. 

Find common ground

Concentrate on the similarities not on the differences. This seems obvious but by focusing on the similarities we are creating a strong basis to build on. When we focus on the similarities it becomes easier to be objective about the differences.

Pregnant pause

It is imperative to pause when communicating with non-natives, thus allowing them to fully process the information and construct a suitable answer. Don't be afraid of silence. It is a useful and powerful tool and it shows that you're listening. 

Sunita Sehmi is a business communications coach and the founder and director of Walk The Talk. Visit

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