London, Canada

Creating Language Empathy in Corporate Canada

3M Canada

February 15, 2012

A communications game challenges management trainees to develop the cultural competencies required for managing a diverse workforce

Imagine you’re having a personal conversation with a colleague. It could be about anything — the movie you saw on the weekend, the new restaurant you ate at last night, the latest book you enjoyed.

Now imagine that every time you use a verb during the conversation — saw, ate, enjoyed — you also have to come up with a synonym — watched, ingested, liked. A simple five-minute conversation all of a sudden becomes much more difficult and challenging.

At 3M Canada in London, Ont., all supervisors employed by the multinational technology conglomerate  complete this language exercise as part of their leadership training. The deceptively simple exercise helps them understand the experiences of their skilled immigrant employees who speak English as a second language, says Sarah Tattersall, Manager of Recruitment and Talent Development at the manufacturing company.

Many of Canada’s immigrants are highly skilled, with years of training and international experience that make them an asset to any organization. But many of these immigrants also speak English as a second language, which can affect communication and teamwork in the workplace.

“When I first did the exercise, it was so clear to me the challenges that someone else would have if they didn’t speak English as a first language,” she says. “How much thought, how much time I spent thinking about ‘What would that word be?’ And so you lose your train of thought about what your message is supposed to be and you’re not 100 per cent listening to what the other person is saying. You can clearly understand how people can get lost in conversations even though they’re fluent in English.”

Ms. Tattersall added the exercise to 3M’s supervisor training in 2011 after learning about the exercise from accounting and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers at a conference for human resources professionals in Toronto earlier in the year.


Learning by Doing

Initially, both people having the conversation would have to come up for synonyms, but this became too difficult. Both parties were concentrating so hard on what their next word was going to be that they weren’t paying attention to what the other person was saying.

“That’s not the experience people have in the workplace. Typically, it’s one person who’s struggling and the other person isn’t,” says Ms. Tattersall.

3M changed the exercise so only one of the two people having the conversation had to come up with a synonym for every verb she used. Then the two switch roles so each person gets the opportunity to experience what it’s like to have to think hard about language and then to also have to wait for her conversational partner to find the right words.

Before the exercise begins, the trainer gives participants some context by talking about how Canada’s demographics are changing and how that affects recruitment and hiring. With more and more skilled immigrants coming to Canada, all workplaces, including 3M, are becoming more diverse.

After the exercise, the trainer debriefs participants by asking them about their experiences what they thought about their partners’ ability when waiting for them to come up with a synonym and how they felt when it was their turn to think of synonyms. The facilitator also asks participants to think about how the conversation would play out in different scenarios, such as at a team meeting or networking event, as opposed to casual conversation.

Participants are surprised by how hard they have to concentrate during the exercise, says Ms. Tattersall. Not only are they listening to the person they’re speaking with, but they’re also thinking about how they’re going to formulate their response, which can be very distracting.

“Everyone finds it challenging,” she says. “The reaction from everyone is: ‘It’s so much harder than you think and we have full command of the English language. If it’s that hard for us, can you imagine how hard it’s going to be for someone who doesn’t have English as their first language?’”

3M Canada works with the London-Middlesex Immigrant Employment Council, which engages employers in the delivery of strategies that facilitate the recruitment and retention of internationally trained individuals in employment opportunities commensurate with international training and experience.


Making it Work for You:

  • You can include the exercise as part of your organization’s leadership training program or as a one-off training exercise.
  • Set up the diversity context for the exercise and debrief participants afterward to have them reflect on what they thought and felt during the exercise. Then ask them to apply that learning in other workplace scenarios.
  • Keep it fun and light. The conversation can be about anything and doesn’t need to be work-related. If you see participants struggling, allow the pair to switch roles so the other person has to come up with the synonyms.

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