Last weekend, the Munich English Language Teaching Association (MELTA) organised a one-day workshop for their English language trainers with Bob Dignen of York Associates, a company which provides not just English language training but also professional communication skills training and international team and leadership training for professional clients in the private and public sectors.

The topics of the workshop ‘Developing Effective Interpersonal Skills’ and ‘Project Management Dynamics’ (which will be covered in a forthcoming blogpost) seemed to automatically suggest a growing need in Business English training to focus on soft skills and communication skills training.

But aren’t we simply language teachers employed to teach the lexico-grammar of Business English and improve our learners written and spoken accuracy and fluency?

Weren’t we told on the CELTA that we didn’t need to be experts at business, but simply experts at the English language?

But does being an expert at the English language not constitute knowing how to use it effectively to communicate successfully across cultures?

Does helping our learners communicate successfully not also include helping them with their ability to build relationships and improve their interpersonal skills?

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While some language teachers might question the necessity and relevance of going beyond the scope of traditional language teaching, companies that commission language training are now under pressure from downward margins, with threats of cutting training budgets.

Especially in the area of in-company training, we need to start looking at how we can give our clients a higher return on their investment by adding value to what we give our learners and repackaging what we do.

Advocating bringing management training content into the ELT classroom, Bob  suggests that we, as trainers, need to ‘aim to help international business professionals to communicate clearly and with right impact in English,’ and this is not just about helping our learners with language and linguistic accuracy.

It’s not just about communicating correctly, but clearly.

As a language trainer, we often fall into the trap of offering fixed phrases and language points, and clients themselves might initially feel that their needs are linguistic. We tell our learners that they should use ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite agree’ and ‘I agree with you up to a point but…’ when disagreeing, and teach them the conditionals in the name of helping them become better negotiators (‘I’ll give you a 20% discount if you take 500 pieces’).

But a phrase or sentence could have so many meanings and interpretations, and is inherently dependent on the different contexts and the interlocutors involved that it is perhaps more useful for the client to look at their underlying communication strategies.

Highlighting the different factors that could influence how one should/would communicate, Bob divides them into intrapersonal, organizational, interpersonal and intercultural backgrounds, and stresses the need to get people thinking about how they communicate. What is their strategy in deciding how they will talk, listen, etc?


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When communication breaks down, or does not go the way we hope, we tend to blame others for being difficult, for being bad listeners, and for not cooperating.

However, a good communicator should instead be able look within, at how we communicate, and act in the spirit of collaboration.

Quoting Karl Popper in saying ‘It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood’, Bob gets the audience to come up with as many interpretations of the utterance ‘Have you finished that report yet?’  

Answers ranging from ‘Why is your report late? The deadline was yesterday!’ to ‘I hope you haven’t finished it because I still have a few points I’d like to add to it,’ and ‘There’s another report I really need you to do. Can we talk about that?’ were given, suggesting the multiple possibilities of misunderstandings that could occur in communication.

Using a case study, several interesting strategies in minimizing such misunderstandings became apparent:

     - the importance of being interactive e.g. making use of clarification techniques to ask for feedback; 
     - Showing humility, being apologetic;
     - Speaking more slowly and clearly;
     - Referring to common context and being explicit;
     - Building relationships by addressing the needs of the listener and interlocutors;
     - Giving ‘we’ messages and not ‘I’ self-marketing messages e.g. by showing collaboration, showing that opinions are based on what others are saying or researched facts, etc.

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Summarising, Bob’s lists what he calls the ‘Clear Speaking Principles’

     - Give enough background information to help the listener interpret the message correctly
     - Say what you are not saying in order to lose down misinterpretation possibilities
     - Include appreciation of circumstances of listener
     - Surface positive motivation
     - Express the message in as way which the other recognizes as polite

Thus, in an attempt to apply the above principles, one might end up with the following example as an alternative to the utterance, ‘Have you finished that report yet?’

Peter, Juan in Spain has just sent me an email asking for your report asap. Sorry but have you finished it yet? I just wanted to see if I could sent it to him this morning because he needs it for a meeting in the afternoon. But I didn’t want to put you under pressure as I know you’re busy.

Interestingly, we might incorporated the five ‘Clear Speaking Principles’ here, but is it really more effective?

Would the speaker be perceived as polite and respectful? Or a bit wishy-washy? Or an attempt to shift the blame? The interpretation could very well be based on the listener’s cultural background and personality preferences, etc.


The audience then goes on to brainstorm activities for the classroom based on these five Clear Speaking Principles:

     - Role play and feedback 
     - Using real communication problems that the student have and relating these principles to them
     - Getting students to examine a range of really badly constructed messages and really well-constructed messages, and to discuss the perceptions and consequences of such messages under different circumstances and in a variety of contexts
     - Looking at a case study with the use of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats
     - Rewriting an email to be more positive and clear.
     - Coaching the use of voice e.g. intonation
     - Highlighting the importance of building relationships – After all, if I know you well, even if you simply say ‘Have you finished that report yet?’ I would know where you are coming from and what exactly you mean.
e.g. you could look at the different relationships the client has and how  hot each one is and discuss how one can go about ‘increasing the  temperature’ of those relationships.


Moving on to the topic of decision-making styles, Bob asks ‘How do approaches to decision-making differ?’ and ‘What are the drivers of these differences?’

  • Individual decision-making with autonomy and responsibility vs Collective decision-making process & having to respect hierarchy
    Top-down vs bottom-up eg. Swedes vs the Baltic states 
  • Slow – Analytical types, Risk adverse and needs all factors considered vs Fast – Action-oriented types, Risk tolerant.
  • Binding vs Iterative
  • Short-term results (decisions made for share-holder value) vs Long-term results i.e. shareholders might make very different decisions from the management of small and medium businesses e.g the Mittelstand


By getting the audience to watch a video clip featuring four managers disagreeing on the decision-making process, we discuss our thoughts on the differences between their styles and the drivers behind it.

Through such discussion, we practise becoming more aware of the differences between the way people make decisions and trying to understand the drivers and reasons for their behaviour, without immediately jumping into conclusions of racial or gender stereotypes – a good exercise in sensitizing one to understanding different values, attitudes and behaviours.

We then looked at the way we thought the characters in the clips should change and handle themselves differently.

By first reflecting upon the behaviours and underlying attitudes of the people in the videoclips, we are then able to reflect on our own behaviours and attitudes.

It is through facilitating such reflection that we can get our clients to change their communication strategies of how they deal with situations for greater impact.


Bob’s goes on to remind us that we might not be able to solve our clients’ problems for them as they are often to do with the paradoxical systems in which they work, and not always with communication issues.
We can only offer opportunities for our clients to reflect.

Some degree of humility is necessary as trainers to know that we are not there to give clients the ‘right way’, but ‘additional ways’ for their ‘communication tool box’.


While we are not there to be the moral compass on the right way of communicating, neither are we there to educate our clients on their intercultural awareness.

As business people, our clients are more interested in being internationally effective, which Bob reminds us is not the same being interculturally aware.

A range of strategies to be effective internationally include:

  • Adapt to the expectations of others – Change my own behaviours to accommodate the other;
  • Blend – Be flexible and mix approaches;
  • Co-create – Develop a new and unique way of doing things together;
  • Divide – My way today, your way tomorrow;
  • Enforce – Tell people to do it my way.

As language and communication trainers, we often talk about helping learners change and adapt. But in fact, the norm in the business world might be to co-create, and/or to enforce one’s own way of working.

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Showing us how we can use the power of discussion and reflection, Bob successfully ends the first part of the workshop by encouraging us to think about communication in a bigger and broader sense, and to see how we can help our clients make communication more effective.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: