In the recent issue of English Teaching Professional (Issue 115), I wrote about the importance for teachers to go beyond promoting linguistic competence and to help our learners develop the communication skills they need to become more effective international communicators.
So what skills are involved in being an international communicator?
Combining the skills in the framework of Intercultural Interaction Competence Spencer-Oatey and Franklin (2009) and the frameworks suggested in varying fields: from inter-cultural studies to linguistics to business studies, alongside my experience as a communication skills trainer, I have narrowed the most desirable skills of an international communicator to the following ten:
- Self-awareness and the ability to reflect
If we can understand our own reactions and responses and unpack the attitudes and values that underlie our behaviour, we start to realize that we are seeing the world through our own perspectives and that not everyone sees things the way we do. Without self-awareness, we could be pointing the finger at others without realizing that we ourselves could very well be the cause of the problem.
- Curiosity: Finding out about ‘the other’
Aside from knowing about ourselves, we also need to know more about the people we are interacting with. And this process starts with having an inherent curiosity about ‘the other’ and wanting to get to know them better. Although it might take you some time and effort to do your research, speak to people of that community, and read up on their sociocultural history, this process could help you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions or making unhelpful judgments.
- Mindfulness and perceptiveness
Mindfulness combines the first two skills on this list, and puts them into practice in an on-going interaction. As we communicate with others, we should be mindful of our own and the other’s behaviour, the ways we are communicating (What are we really saying?; What does that intonation mean?), the way we might come across, and the possibilities for misunderstanding. It would also help to be perceptive and be able to attune ourselves to what is happening, and possess a sensitivity to the circumstances, the context and our conversation partners.
- Open-mindedness and non-judgementalness
If we could put aside our prejudices and biases, suspend judgments of ‘the other’ and be willing to see the world in a different way, we could perhaps accept and embrace ideas, practices and approaches which are new and unfamiliar. Quick judgments of others are often based on the assumptions that are born out of our own norms and attitudes and can lead to misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.
- Patience and tolerance for ambiguity
Life isn’t always black and white but sometimes it is tempting to think that our way is the right way. A successful international communicator is someone who is patient and respectful of different approaches and attitudes and able to feel comfortable in ambiguous situations where things seem complicated, uncertain and unpredictable.
- Emotional strength
When dealing with the unfamiliar and the unexpected, coupled with the difficulty of interacting in a foreign language, can be stressful and overwhelming, we are sometimes tempted to walk away from it all and yell, ‘It’s not me, it’s them.’ Emotional strength refers to the resilience we have within us to not fear failure, deal with the problem at hand, keep our objectives in mind, learn from our mistakes, and remain calm and optimistic.
- Interpersonal skills
An international communicator might not need to be gregarious or outgoing, but it would certainly be helpful to have the social skills needed to build relationships. This includes the ability to build trust and rapport, create bonds that go towards eliminating the sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the skills to influence and persuade others, and exercise understanding and empathy.
- Communication skills
Good communication skills involve an ability to create understanding, be clear and transparent, be aware of the different communication conventions involved, and be sensitive enough to detect misunderstandings and repair them when necessary. Communication is not a one-way affair and good communicators are not only able to put their language skills to good use but also able to interact effectively.
- Flexibility and adaptability
How flexible are you at accommodating different points of view? How quickly can you adapt your behaviour or your communication style to suit the different situations you are in? We need to have the flexibility and adaptability so as to put what we know about intercultural interactions into practice.
- Sense of identity and objectives
This might seem contradictory to Point 9 above but it isn’t: be yourself. Be true to your values and your beliefs and remember who you are. But also know that there are different versions of ‘you’. In an intercultural interaction, be ready to adapt a version of ‘you’ that can suit the situation and the interlocutors in order to facilitate communication and achieve the objectives of the interaction.
There was a time when the majority of our students were learning English to communicate with the English (or Americans/Australians/New Zealanders) and assimilate into the UK (or US/Australia/NZ) culture. English language teachers equated the learning of the English language to the learning of English culture (or American/Australian/New Zealand culture) and saw them as inseparable.
Today, in a time where the English language is used as a tool for international communication, our students learn English to communicate interculturally with English language users from all over the world. Perhaps it’s time we start seeing the teaching of these ten skills as being inseparable from the teaching of the English language.
Helen Spencer-Oatey and Peter Franklin (2009) Intercultural Interaction: A multidisciplinary approach to intercultural communication. London: Palgrave Macmillan.