Last week I was in Denmark, virtually of course, one of the many joys I have of online networking. I was visiting the Athena women’s network in Denmark, and not only was it a great connecting meeting, but I also took some valuable life lessons from it.
The meeting was a multilingual meeting in both Danish and English, and I was so impressed by the women who seemed to easily switch from Danish to English and back again.
I thought with my knowledge of languages that I might be able to follow some of the Danish parts, but very honestly, apart from the odd English word, I did not understand. It has been a long time since I have learnt a language and really experienced that feeling of not comprehending or not being able to say what I want in a language.
The group were so welcoming and accommodating to allow me to speak in English. At the same time, it was a humbling experience to realise so many people, including my clients, experience this at times. Even if they do better than me and actually understand the language, they may not be able to fully follow, participate or communicate in the way, at the level they want, or with their full personality.
It reminded me of my privilege as a native English speaker, and the assumptions we regularly make in international teams that everybody can operate in English to the same level, understand the nuances of communication and subtleties of cultural dynamics.
Here I share how I believe we can create an inclusive space in our virtual meetings, in multilingual and multicultural teams, to create a more equal share of voice.
- Be clear on meeting agenda and expectations: give people the chance to prepare their thoughts, send their questions in advance and be clear on your expectations for the meeting. For example, you might ask people to be at their desk for the meeting (not on the move), have their video switched on and contribute in specific ways in the meeting. It can also really help to ask a question for people to consider and bring their views on.
- Create space for personal connection: allocate a short amount of time at the start of the meeting in breakout rooms for informal catch ups and for people to get to know each other. It can really help with the dynamic and flow of the meeting.
- Record the meeting: if possible, this gives people the chance to go back afterwards and review, especially if they felt they missed a key part.
- Allocate a note-taker: just like in the old days of having somebody writing the minutes for a meeting, this can really make sure everybody has the same interpretation of what happened in the meeting, what was agreed, the actions and next steps. Aim to send it out within 24 hours of the meeting.
- Use closed captioning: turning this function on can be a great support for multilingual teams in online meetings, and removes concerns of following the discussion, if there is a mix of communication styles and abilities. At the moment, most platforms support this in the original source language, but add on apps exist which can simultaneously translate into another language.
- Give a variety of options for people to contribute: rather than assuming everybody is confident to unmute and express their opinions openly in the group. For some cultures there is a greater focus on hierarchy than the English-speaking norm, and people may not be comfortable to say openly what they think, especially in front of more senior managers. Other ways to contribute could include individual comments posted on a white board, anonymous feedback via a second device while on the call, polls, word clouds, and even just using the chat function.
- Allow space to respond: people may need more time than in a face-to-face meeting to gather their thoughts and express them. Allow an extra pause for views and opinions, and check you have everybody’s thoughts before summarising and moving to the next point.
- Invite further contribution after the meeting: some people may feel uneasy contributing in a large forum, so invite people to send final thoughts and views by email after the meeting by a deadline. It can also be a great way to ask for feedback to understand what went well and what ideas people have to improve the meeting next time.
I believe these practical ideas can make your virtual meetings more inclusive for all in multilingual & multicultural teams, something which I believe is an area for us to all focus on.
If you would like to find out more about my communication programmes to support teams & private clients to work more productively, please contact me.