Here’s what our clients want:
● To have near-perfect English grammar.
● To effortlessly reach into the chasms of their mind to retrieve that impressive word.
● To eloquently answer their client’s question without panicking and without pausing.
It would be a dream come true. They’d finally be taken seriously by their peers, team and clients. They’d stop feeling ashamed about their English.
So they seek us English teachers out. They ask us: “Can you repair me?” Because they see themselves as broken.
When I started out as an English teacher, I thought that’s exactly what I was there for. It was my job. To erase those grammar mistakes, to smooth out their vocabulary rough edges, to revive their memory cells. My role was to feed them with language nutrients to make them healthy.
I got my coursebooks out searching for specially-chosen materials like ‘language of meetings’ expressions, lists of phrasal verbs, collocation gap-fill exercises, grammar tables and fluency drills. I even created a series of business idioms videos that I shared on social media.
We were happy, my clients and me. At the end of each day, we’d close our books and pat each other on the back - good job!
At the end of the course, I completed my report for their HR department. I wrote things like:
“After completing this course, the student is now able to use the past simple tense correctly. They can start their meeting with the right opening expressions. They’re able to distinguish between formal and informal email styles. They’re able to reproduce the acquired vocabulary in the right context.”
Recommended further study: read newspapers/business articles, watch movies, listen to Ted Talks and podcasts. Revise grammar and vocabulary sheets. Perfectly valid suggestions.
A few months later, my clients returned frustrated.
They claimed their English hadn’t improved. They kept making the same grammar mistakes. Their vocabulary was worse than before and they still struggled to answer questions.
They tried to revise their course notes, read more in English, watch movies but by the time they got home each day, their mental bandwidth was depleted.
They cancelled so many times that they finally decided to stop their English fluency classes.
“Can you fix me again?” Of course, I can.
By the time we got to round 3, I realised that things weren’t working. The traditional method wasn’t getting the results my clients needed. Sure, they felt confident after each course, but that feeling soon diminished. They needed to sustain that feeling of confidence and for that, I needed to rethink my strategy.
A 360 Rethink
Having worked with them I realised that, as someone who worked successfully in an international company and/or worked with international clients, their English was more than good enough. I could hear it when they explained their work to me.
They didn’t need more language. They needed to take the English they had and communicate better. They needed to work from a position of abundance to become their confident self.
So, I put the coursebooks and language materials away and instructed them to put aside their English and focus, instead, on how they communicated.
With a pen and journal, I asked them a series of reflection questions and listened to their answers.
● What exactly happens when you communicate in your meetings? Give me specific examples.
● Aside from your English, what scares you the most when you communicate in your meetings? Why?
● What are you proudest about how you communicate in English? (For example, how you ask questions, how you engage with your audience, how well you listen.) ● What do you think are the gaps? Why?
● If you reflect long enough, are those moments of miscommunication all down to you, in other words, one-sided or could the other person have communicated better? (The tendency is always to think that the responsibility for good communication is solely theirs.)
● Are those moments language-specific or something else? Not paying attention, not listening, not clarifying, no clear messaging, no structure?
Then taking a specific past meeting, I asked them to reflect:
How would more English vocabulary have helped you get your business result?
How would perfect grammar have helped you in that negotiation? Would it have made a difference?
How would knowing business idioms have sealed the deal?
I wanted them to reflect long and hard on whether the moments of miscommunication was because of their ‘bad or lack of ‘ English or something else. I wanted them to reflect on whether the other side could have helped them more. I wanted them to discover for themselves that communication is a 2-way street. That the onus is on both sides to collaborate. They couldn’t this without reflection and observation.
This reflection time is often overlooked in business because it’s seen as less productive. Business is all about doing and if you’re don’t ‘do’, you’re not effective. Hence why the urge to have more grammar and vocabulary sheets and fluency drills.
With my coaching approach, I ‘force’ my clients to slow down to do this important reflection work. We do it together in a coaching session which is far more time-efficient than giving them homework which is often not done because of lack of time.
We analyse the answers and explore together what strategies they could adopt in their next meeting/presentation to get the business result they need without worrying about how they are going to use the present perfect tense when answering the question or how many idiomatic expressions to use. They apply the strategies and then report back in the next session. If anything needs tweaking then they are made and re-applied. As they create a habit of reflection and adaptation, they slowly notice their communication style changing which boosts their confidence.
During the session, they stay focused, relevant and present. They focus on what matters. Their work. Achieving a business result. By reflecting on how they are going to get their message across to get what they want, they take ownership and responsibility about communicating in the most effective way for THEM. With the English they have.
For me, it was a eureka moment because I realised that my real job was not to ‘fix’ their language (it didn’t need fixing) but to help them discover for themselves how much English they already had and offer them strategies to use to their advantage.
My job was to give them the confidence to be themselves: a senior business professional comfortable in their skin and with their English.
That’s why I stopped being an English teacher.
Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat is a Business English Coach who helps senior business professionals communicate more effectively in English with their international colleagues and clients. With the English they have.
Her teaching method focuses not on grammar and vocabulary but on uncovering and breaking her clients’ harmful communication patterns and developing new, more effective habits that will boost their confidence and help them become their confident self while communicating in English at work. She can be reached on LinkedIn.