“The most difficult thing to admit that one’s value as a second language speaker overshadows one’s real value.” Tsedal Neeley

Communicating successfully between native and non-native colleagues requires more than just speaking slow-ly and clear-ly. The power of the native speaker and their language competence is perceived as more of an assist than non-natives professional knowledge or skills. So if you are leading a global team communicating in diverse Englishes, how can you stay aware and awake at work? Here are my top 10 tips for productive interaction with non-natives so you hear all the voices in the room.

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 a 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. Then, 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.

“Language is what you say and not what you write” John McWhorter

Put your cards on the table

Use collective experiences to establish common ground. For example, perhaps you have struggled in a presentation or a meeting in another language. Demonstrate to your colleagues that you understand and recognize 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 about 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 before negotiations and meetings.

“As English becomes used more widely as a language of international reach, a greater diversity of viewpoints is represented.” David Graddol

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 the organisation’s corporate culture 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 create a strong basis to build on. In addition, when we focus on the similarities, it becomes easier to be objective about the differences.

“Avoid at all costs slang, jargon and abbreviations.”

Pregnant pause

It is imperative to pause when communicating with non-natives, thus allowing them to 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. 

This article was originally published in Business Life Magazine for British Airways.


  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper. With over three decades of expertise in multicultural environments, Sunita brings a unique blend of Indian, British, and Swiss heritage to her consultancy, fostering a deep understanding of organisational contexts and her clients. Sunita’s insights and expertise are tailored to elevate your leadership.