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In most of my daily life, I can understand most of the American English(and some Chinese) speaking people I come into contact. But in my office/workplace, there are more and more people with a heavy accent and I am not entirely sure what is the best way to approach these sorts of situations particularly if it is your client or manager. In particular, I have a bit of trouble understanding heavy Indian accents.

I did come across this article by lighthouse. But it mainly deal with coworker accent. And it does not really address how to deal with understanding a client's or manager's heavy accents in more of a professional way. For instance when the client/manager speaks, I do often have to listen very intently with one ear facing him and ask him to repeat. And I try to keep a notepad handy when speaking with him. But it does get a bit frustrating.

Does anyone have any helpful tips on how they deal with coworkers and especially clients/manager's heavy accents in a professional manner?

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I wanted to chime in here as this was something I struggled with a number of years ago when I switched to an industry which relies more on off-shore contractor support than what I had been used to.

As @BenMz mentioned above, your understanding of an individual's accent will get better with practice but there are a few "cheats" that will help you get by in the meantime. Whether you are communicating face to face or over the phone will also help shape how you want to approach the situation.

For all situations:

  • Don't be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves but always blame yourself for the need. Bad hearing, bad connection, other distractions, even just simply not getting the problem... all can be used as an excuse to repeat what was said.
  • Be patient - Communication barriers can be frustrating, especially when there are important topics that need to be discussed. Be patient in trying to break the communication barriers and always try and put yourself in the other person's shoes. Chances are they are as frustrated with the communication breakdown as you are.
  • Note that most languages, dialects and varieties have a cadence or rhythm to them and individuals will often apply their own unique flair as well. To your ears, this foreign rhythm can make understanding difficult but once your brain is able to "follow the beat" of an individual's speech pattern you'll suddenly be surprised how clear someone's speech becomes. As an example: I remember 5 years ago struggling to understand one of my coworker's accents and now his speech is so clear to me that on multiple occasions I have - tactfully - acted as a translator for him when a customer couldn't understand him. Try and note the speech patterns of the individual you are having problems with. Once you can start to expect the "beat" or the flow of their speech, your brain will better piece together the content of what they are saying.
  • Hold on to context clues. This is so big. It may seem counter-intuitive but you don't have to understand every single word that a person speaks in order to effectively communicate. Even if you are only able to understand every 3rd or 4th word, you can still piece together what someone is trying to say. Listen closely and try and pick up what you can and then use these "clues" to build a picture of the subject matter. Then, practice the following...
  • Repeat back everything and ask for confirmation. I often say "If I'm understanding correctly, we need to [repeat back my understanding of what I heard]". With practice, you will become so adept at doing this that it won't be obvious at all that you may be struggling with understanding a person's speech. Repeating back your understanding will just be something that you do automatically to make sure that tasks are fully understood before you accept them.
  • If necessary, ask for the detail in writing but be tactful about it... "Hey, [I'm really swamped at the moment/this connection is really poor/noise was going on in the background] and I don't want to [forget this conversation/miss any important details]. Can you send me a quick email summary so I've got it on my agenda"
  • Follow-up conversations in writing yourself asking for confirmation that you understood the topic. This is really a good habit in business regardless of accent issues. Confirming in writing can highlight a communication breakdown but it also documents voice conversations for posterity. (Which in certain contexts can really save your bacon later on!)

Face to Face:

  • Look closely at a persons lips when they speak. We actually all read lips (not just professionals) subconsciously and having visual clues along with auditory speech will help you translate what you are hearing. I always notice that I have less struggles with speech in person than over the phone.
  • Use emotional clues. Reading an individuals face will unlock the emotions behind their speech. You may only be picking up every 4th word but if you are able to also determine that person's emotional make-up and physical ticks then you have additional information to piece together what is being communicated.

Note that the above doesn't have to only be for speaking with someone with an accent. Effective communication is fairly universal whether you are communicating with someone who speaks your language as a secondary language or not. You may also benefit from taking some "Effective Communication" courses online to identify other tools for helping bridge communication gaps.

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Practice.

This is like learning a different language. Find someone with a similar accent you are friendly with. Offer to buy them a coffee or tea if they will chat with you. You can be honest about why you are doing this. Even ask them to teach you a little of thier native languages if its not English.

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    Thanks! Good idea. But I think you mean "accent" instead of "accident" - :) Yeah it is good idea to approach in more open fashion. – Linkx_lair Jun 9 '18 at 2:47
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    Youtube is also a great way to practice, if you can find someone from the right region. – Mel Reams Jun 10 '18 at 3:49
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But it does get a bit frustrating.

This is the problem, just change your mindset and do not allow yourself to become frustrated. Understanding accents gets better with time. Frustration is a personal issue you need to resolve.

General rule of thumb is not to project your personal issues on others in the workplace but resolve them yourself. If it's not their problem, don't make it their problem.

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If it's your manager that you are having problems with, tell him. If you don't tell him he will think you are stupid, or ignoring what he says, or many other things that are not positive to you. If you tell him, native English speakers can tone their accent down significantly if they try. For customers, ask your manager whether you should tell them.

For non-native speakers, the same is true to a lesser degree. A french man may be able to speak English with less accent, it may take them some effort. Some people can't, they speak the best they can. Tell them that you have a hard time understanding them, because your own English isn't perfect.

  • to be clear, i am a native English speaker (american). The issue i have is with very heavy foreign accents. How can I best approach my manager about that? – Linkx_lair Jun 9 '18 at 15:02

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