Engagement Through Language Coaching

By Andrea Griggs, TCP Associate

Many new Canadians bring valuable skills to the workplace but sometimes need help to improve their communication abilities.  Language coaching, a combination of coaching, communication training and teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), is designed to do just that.  In the current economic climate, it’s imperative for organizations to be able to exploit the talent they have in their employee pool.  Language coaching is both incredibly empowering for the individual and hugely beneficial for the organization.  In this article, I will link language coaching with the TCP Leader Coach process to demonstrate how to help your employees who speak English as a Second Language.  First, a short vignette to illustrate the power of language coaching:

Anna had been in Canada for 8 months and had found a job in her field (IT) almost immediately.  While her technical skills were excellent, she rarely volunteered any information unless directly asked.  She complained that everyone in the office thought she was quiet and serious but that was just who she was in English, not who she really was.  As a coach, I worked with her on developing her small talk skills.  Since Anna spent most of her time at work interacting with her computer, she needed to create more communication situations where she could practice her English and gain confidence.  I challenged her to take it out on the streets by asking her to have 10 small talk conversations before our next meeting the following week.  She was quite nervous when she left, but she came back triumphant, having had a 40 minute conversation with a stranger on the GO train.  This was a watershed moment for her.  From that point on, she started communicating with more people at work, participating in meetings and giving her own opinion.  Now, instead of just doing whatever she is asked, she will give her opinion about what needs to be done, often saving the company time and money.  People at work wonder what happened to the quiet woman they first met but are very happy with the transformation.

In the story above, Anna needed some specific English Language instruction focused on how to make small talk and some coaching on how to gain confidence in applying it.  This process fits seamlessly into the three stages in the Leader Coach model used by TCP.

Building Trust involves creating appreciative connections, understanding the story and gathering information.  In order to create those connections, it’s critical to become aware of our own biases – in this case, our own biases when working with people who speak different languages and come from different cultures.  Anna’s co-workers thought that she was shy and not interested in communicating with them.  We react to most cultural differences on a gut level.  When people don’t follow social conventions, such as not maintaining eye-contact or not making small talk, we think of them as standoffish or rude.  It’s important to be aware of your own cultural “glasses” and investigate further.  While working with Anna, I explored how she felt about communicating with others.  She talked about the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture and not wanting to make a mistake.  She said she was not actually a quiet person; she was very talkative and social.  She explored the frustration of not being able to express that side of herself in English.

Building Awareness involves agreeing on what the gap is, getting feedback, creating a goal.  Giving the second language learner feedback on a communication difficulty is a crucial step.  For example, if they speak too quickly, they need to slow down to be better understood. Or when chatting with other employees, they need to understand that both people are responsible for the small talk conversation and it is helpful when they also initiate questions and comments.  In Anna’s case, she needed to know the important role that small talk plays in the workplace.  We explored what being a more effective communicator would mean for Anna and she made a commitment to improving her English. We explored some resistance when I challenged her to dramatically increase her small talk.  She wanted to do it in Chinese first.  This was the chance for me as coach to challenge her story, to remind her of her goal and hold her accountable.

Building the Future includes implementing the improvement goal and supporting success. Anna agreed to complete the challenge and it was a great chance for me as coach to celebrate her accomplishments.  She’d gone from barely speaking to having 10 conversations with people she didn’t know very well in a week.  And one of them had been for over half an hour!  Taking the time to celebrate is important; it gives us the motivation to continue to work and improve.  The final stage of building the future is, of course, to start over again. What is the next goal?  For Anna, the next step involved making small talk with her manager, speaking up more in meetings, and taking on a greater leadership role within her team.

Coaching new Canadians to help them improve their communication skills is a similar process to working with established Canadians.  Sometimes we feel reluctant to acknowledge language difficulties because we are afraid we might be perceived as discriminatory.  However, we tend to promote only those who have excellent communication skills, so withholding help from people who need it disadvantages them and us.  Generally new Canadian employees are extremely eager to communicate more successfully in English because they know it will help them succeed.  They appreciate the organization supporting them to improve their communication skills.