“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” George Bernard Shaw.
Communication problems exist even when talking to people in our own language. How many times have you left a meeting thinking everyone agreed to the plan and that everyone was working on the same goals, yet, it turned out that everyone did not agree and, in fact, they were all going off in different directions?
These problems are only compounded when additional languages are introduced. If your team members are participating in their non-native language, it is virtually inevitable that there will be misunderstandings. As a leader, your job is to check-in with each team member to ensure that they understand and that team members are comfortable asking questions and to checking assumptions. As a team member, it is your responsibility to speak up, ask questions, confirm you understood properly, and raise flags.
"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
If you are giving a presentation with non-native speakers in the audience, you should really consider hiring a professional interpreter who will not just translate word-for-word, but will ensure that the entire meaning is correctly relayed to the audience. Non-professional, bilingual speakers often think they know the right word, but it can be off just enough to confuse the meaning of the sentence. Translation and interpretation is an art form that requires an understanding of the subtle differences of word choice.
Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them. Aristotle
Most of us have heard Aristotle's advice to tell them what you're going to tell them three times. This is even more important when your information will be relayed in a second language. By translating or interpreting the ideas multiple times, not only does the information get reinforced but also ambiguity is reduced. In meetings, take the opportunity to double and triple check that what you have said was understood and reiterate the action plan to ensure everyone agrees on next steps.
"The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said." Peter Drucker
Peter Drucker's quote demonstrates the need to be aware of cultural biases. So much of communication is reading between the lines. How we convey information can tell us as much as what is said. More problems arise when we communicate cross-culturally and nuances can get lost in translation. All cultures have conventions that as natives we are hardly aware of: body language, looks, phrasing, tone, and ways of implying without coming out and saying what we're thinking. Much of this gets lost in language conversion, so if you're working with non-native speakers you need to be much more explicit than when dealing only with one culture/language.
How many times have we heard that communication is key, yet we take it for granted. We have too many meetings every day, too much email hitting our in boxes, and hundreds of texts and online forum responses to make. Slow down and be very mindful of what you're saying and how you're saying it, and check-in frequently to make sure that your communication is two-way and that all parties agrees about what was said.