Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Do you find phone calls with clients and other professions challenging?
When I first started working as a landscape architect, I found phone calls to be a nightmare. I was afraid I wouldn't know what to say. What if they asked me a question and I didn't know the answer? I'm someone who needs to see things written or drawn to feel more confident that I know what I'm saying. How did I overcome this? Before every phone call I made, I wrote a sort of mind map and flow chart to help me navigate the phone call, and I ticked off points as I went. I find this to be a handy tool for lots of visual learners, and not surprisingly, many architects and landscape architects prefer to visualise their thinking.
In a zoom meeting, I usually have this mind map sitting to the side or something even stuck to my screen just below the camera (so I can still see the others of course).
So what things can you do to make your phone calls easier when English is your second language?
1. Make 1 mind map or a list of points you need to cover
Just the other day, I had an early morning telephone meeting with a client. I wrote down all the points I knew I had to cover, and I drew them as a mind map, and I ticked each of the points off as we spoke. Sometimes, I write down questions I think they might ask me, too. This technique is something that has stayed with me my entire career. I need it; otherwise, I lose my focus.
2. What if the speed someone is talking, and the accent is challenging during a phone call?
What do you do then?
You could ask them to slow down. If you find that hard or you don't want to bring up that you don't understand them, tell them it's hard to hear. You could try:
"Sorry it's tough to hear what you're saying, there is a lot of background noise could you speak slower?
"Sorry, it's tough to hear you, the line isn't good, could you speak a bit slower?
3. What about in an online meeting?
I've started to get into the habit with my students to say if something is difficult to understand or you need to ask a question, write them in the chatbox. While it's not the same - a 1:1 meeting compared to a group meeting, one thing you could suggest to the host is to direct everyone in the meeting to write down any pressing questions in the chatbox.
4. What if I sometimes I understand things but not others?
Try repeating back to them what they just said:
So what you're saying is...
From what I understand you're saying
Valuable things should always be in an email or writing so you could also ask - can you write that in an email? Or confirm the telephone call in an email.
Keeping records of telephone conversations is especially essential when you're doing construction administration. For example, you should write an email after by stating - "as you mentioned on the phone ..."
The more you do this, the more wrong assumptions you will fix before they become misconceptions.
5. Practice real to life phone calls and online meetings and presentation with a 1:1 teacher.
This is quite an easy task for me to do with my students because this is how we learn anyway. During practice sessions, you can also record the phone calls or the role-play meetings and analyse them.
Making phone calls in another language is hard enough without being distracted. Call from a place where you have good reception, you can minimise background noise, and nobody will interrupt you. - tell them you'll call them back if the conditions are not ideal
I also talk about how you can improve your listening skills at home in another blog post here. Improving your listening skills outside of work will also help you to tackle the tricky situations at work.
6. Don't be afraid to ask
Shyness and apprehension are not your friends during a phone call! After all, you're calling to accomplish something, and it doesn't help if you can only understand half of what the other person is saying. Prepare helpful sentences beforehand in the language you're learning. The examples below are useful to let your conversation partner know when you didn't understand something:
7. What to say when you need to clarify something?
Firstly, try to repeat what they say back to you to confirm and clear up any misunderstandings:
As I understood, you said ...
So what you're saying is ...
"Could you repeat that, please?"
"I couldn't understand that, could you please phrase it another way?"
"How do you spell that? / Could you spell that?"
"Where can I read about this?"
"Sorry, I'm still learning this language."
Follow up the phone call with an email and write it straight away so that you can confirm or overcome any misunderstandings.
Very often my phone calls or meetings are to talk about visual things too so where possible I try to draw something, mark up plans and explain things then I clarify by sending these images through so they can see them visually. This saves so much time in the long run!
I hope you found that useful and you can put some of these ideas into action.