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I've recently been assigned to manage a different team at my work space, and have been put in charge of running the update meetings for that team. I haven't yet gotten to know the team members very well, but I have run into one problem so far.

Some of the team members will speak very quickly, and with a very thick accent that I cannot fully parse unless I ask them to re-state what they've said several times.

Since our work is part-time remote, we often have these conferences over the phone - which makes it even more difficult to understand them due to the occasional phone static.

I do not want to be rude to the employee that I am now supervising, but it can be quite difficult for me as I try to take notes on what they are doing during the day and what they need from me. How can I improve communication between the two of us?

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  • Which participants are (close to) native speakers of the language being used? Apr 9 at 15:55
  • @PhilipKendall I don't know the exact nationality status of all the participants, so I can't say for sure. One participant in particular sometimes has trouble understanding what I'm asking, but I do not think it is a language barrier - more that it is us being unfamiliar with each other.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 9 at 16:14
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    Ask someone who is following them to take minutes and send you a copy to sanity-check? Beyond that, all you can do is say "I'm sorry. I didn't catch that; could you say it more slowly please?" With practice your ear for their accent will improve.
    – keshlam
    Apr 9 at 23:11

4 Answers 4

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I had the experience of being in meeting with someone whose accent I could hardly understand. The individual also tended to speed up while talking and seemed to repeat things, which only added to confusion. Off the top, a few things that could help:

  • Check your understanding: After each input, summarize what you took to be the key idea and check for confirmation. This ensures clarity while focusing the discussion on the idea being expressed rather than how it was expressed. One tactic is to ask for an example or elaboration:
    • "So, for instance, how would it work?"
    • "Tell me more about what you mean here."

This way you are not asking to repeat what the person said, but their response can shed more light to help you grasp the point.

  • Follow up: After the meeting, share your notes with the individual and ask if they reflect their key points/ideas, and ask them to correct anything that may be off.

  • Use technology: As an add-on here, if possible, see if you can use real-time transcription to capture online meeting discussions, and/or record meetings and re-listen later (if you feel it might help, and time permitting). Granted, a text version may have limited use if the software is no better than you at grasping the accent, but it could be worth a try.

This could help make the best of the situation while not putting the individual on the defensive and keeping the communication open and honest. Make sure they do not perceive that they are the problem, since this issue really has two parts -- their accent, but also your difficulty deciphering it, which others might find less challenging. Good luck!

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    These are good suggestions - thank you. I don't think we have nay RTT for our meeting software, but I can try to use these soft skills to get clarity on what they say - and they do also seem to speed up a bit when talking, so asking to clarify what they've said seems like it would be helpful for me too.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 9 at 18:23
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    Good answer, I would advocate speaking to the person as well. Frame it as your issue "I'm new and I struggle to keep up with you, sometimes I'm going to have to ask you to slow down or repeat something so I can understand your update."
    – deep64blue
    Apr 9 at 18:47
  • @deep64blue To be clear here, I'm not a new manager at the current location - I'm just working with a new team. Also, I'm not sure asking them explicitly and individually to slow down would be taken well by them.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 9 at 18:57
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    If you ask infrequently, and make clear that it's because you're still learning rather than being their fault -- "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that" -- and are making an honest effort to adjust, most folks will cut you a bit of slack. It took me a while to adjust to fluent speakers of Indian English, which is not only an accent I wasn't used to but which has some idiomatic differences...
    – keshlam
    Apr 11 at 15:12
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    @Zibbobz It may be worth investigating what it would take to get RTT capability. It is very helpful from an accessibility standpoint for people who are hearing impaired and can let anyone lower the volume on the meeting without missing what's being said. Microsoft Teams has live captioning. It shows the transcription for everyone in the meeting, which can cause people to slow down when they see the service mangling their words.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 12 at 12:21
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Are you their manager, or just someone who runs a meeting? If you're a manager, do this in a one-on-one, but if not, give them a call (or arrange a meeting on the phone). Be very polite at all times, of course, but make them aware that you have problems with their speech patterns. Tell them that if you ask them to repeat something, it's not anything but to ensure that you understand them, and sometimes they may need to speak slower just for you. Anything from the meetings which is important should be documented elsewhere anyway, of course.

You'll probably find (and quickly) that the more you speak with these people, the easier it gets - you'll become used to their cadence and speech patterns.

source: I work with offshore teams every day.

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    Thank you for asking - I am the team manager actually, so I should definitely include that in my question.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 13 at 13:31
  • Even if you are not the manager, just making clear from the start of the meeting that you are not used to the accent, should not offend anyone and they might focus a bit more to speak clearly and will know why you want them to repeat something if necessary. This answer is by far the best and most open way to deal with this.
    – kirbby
    Apr 17 at 10:25
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Aside from the already provided good answers, you can also try to train yourself on the accent. Expose yourself to the same accent in unrelated fields where you know well enough what is being said. E.g. if possible watch a movie or hear a podcast that uses that accent. What media is available obviously depends on the main language and the accent that you have issues with.

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This might sound blunt. But make it obvious and speak load and clearly and ask the person to repeat clear and slowly as you have difficulties understanding what is being said.

«Excuse me, I cannot understand you. Can you please talk slow, clearly and without dialect? I am not a native speaker.»

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