Business English about soft skills as well as language learning, conference told
11 June 2014

Soft skills took centre stage at English UK's annual conference for Business English teachers.

Many of the sessions, including the opening and closing presentations, argued that general communication skills are increasingly vital in global business, and should play a major part in Business English.

Opening the day, Bob Dignen asked: "Why do we exist? What challenges do we help clients meet? How far may we, despite our best intentions, be disadvantaging our participants, making them in some senses worse international communicators when they should be better?"

Mr Dignen, director of York Associates, suggested that in certain cases it could be counter-productive to raise someone's English level too high, suggesting that teaching language to more than B2 could be a "disabler" in situations where non-native speakers were working together. "If you start to give more complex vocabulary it becomes less comprehensible to non-native speakers. You need to keep it at B1-plus, but get more strategic about communication rather than language," Describing the need to "evolve" Business English, he continued:  "I'm not even sure should call ourselves English language teachers. We make people aware of communication - how to speak clearly and  listen well. People may not do those things in their own do you become a good speaker and effective listener? There may be many different definitions. Is sitting in silence effective listening? In some places yes, but in other parts of the world unless you are interacting you are not polite."

He argued for the development of what he called the Big Seven interpersonal skills: building rapport, networking, developing trust, decision making in groups, influencing, managing conflict, and giving and receiving feedback.

Trainers should ask: what are the main challenges of working and communicating in today's global organisations. Language, culture and distance all had a part to play, but, he said, if language was the prime reason then native speakers would be the best in such environments "but we know they're not."

Mr Dignen said that if training sessions included discussions of the difficulties in global companies "you often see a sigh of relief with people realising 'that's why I experience what I do.'"

He outlined some useful strategies, including ways in which more clarity could be brought into communications. He suggested:

  • giving enough background information to help the listener interpret questions correctly
  • convey a positive intention
  • include appreciation of the circumstances of the listener.
  • say what you are not saying to close down misinterpretation
  • express message in way the other recognises as polite.

However, he said, many clients didn't consider these things in their own language, which made this a "whole new ball game. We're offering huge added value, which brings us back to first question -- are we doing something that matters?"

Nick Brieger, the other plenary speaker, wanted to talk about how to teach business meetings and said: "I want them to learn better techniques for communications. Soft skills complement hard skills, which are the occupational requirements of a job. Hard skills will get you the interview but soft skills get you the job - and to keep it." He said that trainees often rushed to decision making when working together on business meetings, and suggested that it was helpful to give them techniques "in bite sized chunks" which they could practice and feed back on exploring and analysing options to make sound decisions.

He concluded: "If we're looking for new approaches to teach business meetings, the influence of culture and personality and communication techniques provide a way to move the teaching of business meetings forward and give a new method to the classroom."

Other sessions during the day included Ros Wright on English for Medical Practice training, and Candy van Olst discussing how to make language lessons truly relevant to trainees.

Pointing out that the NHS is the largest employer in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, with 37 per cent of doctors and almost half of nurses recruited from abroad, she said more EMP trainers were needed.

There was very little training for teachers, but in many ways the skills were not different to teaching Business English. Gaps in training for medical staff included patient-centred care, difficulties of language and dialect, non-verbal communication and social and behavioural norms. It also made a big difference to patients in how medical staff asked certain sensitive questions, such as about drinking.

Would-be trainers needed to understand the requirements of the doctors and nurses, but also patients. Like any ESP training, it needed to be about performance, replicating real life scenarios and so on.

Ms Wright quoted research showing that medical staff coming to work in the UK and their supervisors often had differing views about their level of English. For instance, just 15 per cent of trainees were not confident in the usefulness of their English, compared with 66 per cent of their supervisors.

Another interesting session examined how to become an intercultural trainer. Philip O'Connor stressed that a vital skill was to interpret what was happening, before evaluating it. "All of us start evaluating at the beginning. But there is no rush to evaluate. Evaluation is often negative." He said trainers needed to be aware of the differences between task and relationship oriented cultures.

When we're communicating with other cultures, he said, DIE was the acronym to remember: describe, interpret and then evaluate. Initial impressions could be misleading, incorrect assumptions can be made, behaviour can be interpreted different and different rules may apply.

He said mostly people did want to show respect for each other, but outward manifestations could differ from culture to culture. Most communication problems were caused by native speakers of English in  international venues. "By default chairing meetings can fall to native speaker who can be least best especially if they have never learned another language and have little sensitivity to how tiring it is to conduct a day in another language even if you have reached a good level."

It was not just a question of speaking more slowly, but about mirroring a counterpart's style, showing patience and tact.

Huan Japes, Deputy Chief Executive of English UK, was very pleased with the day. "We had the idea a couple of years ago about the interface in skills training between language learning, Business English, and English for Specific Purposes and skills training.

"It's not about Business English trainers necessarily becoming soft-skills trainers, it's about adding to our repertoire of techniques, encouraging discussion in the area of soft skills and thinking about the processes of communication.

"How can language teaching and communication training be taught simultaneously?"

Around sixty trainers attended the day, held at International House in London, travelling from as far away as Germany and Finland. Finnish delegate Anne Sjöberg said she came because there was nothing similar in her home country. "I think this is the only one in Europe. It's the first time I have been able to come, and I am really enjoying it. I'm reflecting on the new ideas I've heard and the exhibition is really useful because it gives me the opportunity to actually look at the books rather than just buying them online."

Jane McKinley from ECS in Edinburgh was also attending for the first time because the event's new date made it possible. "I'm interested in soft skills because they are something students are looking for more and more. They are at the heart of Business English. It's nice to know about new teaching methods and reflect on what you've heard travelling back. It's great to meet people as well."

So what is Business English? The panel discussion at the end of the day threw up some interesting answers.

"It's a hybrid," said Nick Brieger. "There are as many different competencies in trainers as interests in trainees. We all need to find our own place, our own way, our methodology, areas of content we're comfortable with. There is no single recipe for creating a Business English trainer to work in any of our contexts."

Bob Dignen added: "The assumption behind the question that there is an answer. The answer is: it depends." 

Click here to view a gallery of photos from the English UK Business English Trainers' Conference 2014.


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