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How to stop worrying about using English at work

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Brilliant, beautiful you! You're a confident public speaker. You know how to chair a meeting or manage a conference call. You have great relationships with your colleagues and you have no problem in speaking out with brilliant ideas that solve problems. You can do all these things effortlessly and beautifully…….. until you are asked to do them in English.

Then what happens? Instead of owning the stage and winning the audience over, you hesitate and forget your words. You struggle to be heard among your international colleagues in meetings or conference calls. You dread being asked your opinion so you avoid eye contact in meetings, and no-one ever hears your amazing idea.

Your negative self-talk has taken over:

  • "What happens if I make a mistake? Will they notice? Will they laugh at me?"

  • "What happens if I don't understand my American colleague's accent?"

  • "What happens if my pronunciation is so bad that no-one understands me?"

Instead of the wonderful confidence you feel when you perform in your first language, you feel anxious, afraid and ashamed. You're supposed to be an expert, but you feel like you have the language skills of a small child.

My experience I'm an English native speaker who has seldom needed a foreign language for work. The only exception was when I taught English in China to some very demotivated, lazy students and I developed the habit of telling them off in Chinese as this was more effective than telling them off in English. I have to say I enjoyed this! I've never had the experience of being in a Zoom conference call with 20 Chinese native speakers. I've never needed to present facts and figures to an audience of Chinese business people. But I can imagine the fear, doubt and anxiety that might accompany needing to do such a task. And I know from many of my clients how debilitating these feelings can be:

  • My B2-level client who had regular online meetings with a large group of English native speakers and who struggled with their accent and colloquial language.

  • My C1-level client who was head of a department and a brilliant public speaker in their language but was terrified of making mistakes in English.

  • My C1-level client who criticised themselves for not being as good as younger colleagues who had lived and studied in English speaking countries.

  • My C2-level client who was deeply ashamed of their pronunciation.

As you can see, all of these clients had a high level of English and yet they were tortured by their feelings of inadequacy.

So, what can be done about this?

Listen to your staff From a managerial perspective, it's important to ensure that all staff feel able to speak out and express themselves. People respond to being heard and valued so if you are a manager or supervisor, take the time to really listen to what people are saying. By validating your staff in this way, you can lower the anxiety that they may feel when speaking English at work. Take action to solve the problem If language anxiety is a big issue for you, do something about it rather than hope it will go away (it won't!). Anxiety limits not only our confidence but also our willingness to take on tasks and projects because we are so afraid of getting it wrong or being rejected. To solve anxiety, we need to turn this around; when we take action, we empower ourselves, rather than allowing anxiety to drain away our strength.

Possible action might include:

  • Prioritising the most challenging English language situation you face at work for urgent attention

  • Looking for a specialist teacher

  • Speaking to a sympathetic colleague or supervisor

  • Learning specific vocabulary phrases for difficult situations

  • Improving your pronunciation with a pronunciation coach or teacher

Work on your limiting self-talk

Although it feels like external situations are causing your anxiety, in fact it is your internal response to those situations. Our responses are driven by our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and our capabilities, and these in turn are often internally expressed through our self-talk. Many anxious learners have very negative self talk:

  • "I'm terrible at English"

  • "I hate my accent"

  • "I must speak English perfectly all the time, and if I don't, I am a failure"

Changing your self-talk takes time and patience. It can help to write down observations about your current self-talk such as what you say to yourself when you are in a meeting or Zoom call. Then, think about a more positive thing you could say.

Improve your interpersonal skills

I knew of an Eastern European woman who worked as a children's doctor in the UK. She was having issues with her patients at the hospital and some had complained about her. It transpired that although she had very good English, she spoke in a very direct and brusque manner which was interpreted by her English patients as coldness and rudeness! Not only this, but she never spoke to the children, only to the parents. She just needed to learn some softer phrases and a slightly different way of behaving to overcome the challenge. Remember that a lot of communication isn't about the words, it's about the way the words are spoken. If you are affected by language anxiety at work, book a free 30-minute call with me to discuss how I can help you overcome the fear and release your brilliant self!

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