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Teaching virtual communication skills by Bob Dignen Print E-mail
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Bob Dignen 

Greetings, all. Hope life is treating you well. Just back from another stimulating conference so lots of ideas buzzing around my head. One thing that is particularly occupying my mind, and you’ll be glad that I’ve decided to share this with you today, is the issue of virtual communication. This essentially means email and telephoning, although there are other aspects such as communicating via intranets / extranets, management of shared document databases etc. During the conference I went to, which looked mainly at the challenges facing international teams, there seemed to be a shared assumption that virtual communication was a poor cousin of face-to-face. And the fact that people working in international teams had to communicate virtually became a de facto explanation (or at least one important explanation) of why these teams seemed to underperform regularly.

But I’m not so sure. I think there are real advantages to communicating virtually and we can look at these in a minute. Isn’t it more the way the medium is used, not so much the medium itself, that’s the issue. As trainers of English for international communication, therefore, we may have to get involved in teaching ways to use the virtual channel, virtual English communication skills whatever these may be. Interesting, huh?

But let’s start with advantages of communicating virtually, and there are a surprisingly high number.

·       Saves on travel costs e.g. conference calls over face-to-face meetings

·       Saves time with reduced travel, good for working efficiency and work-life balance

·       Brings groups of people together from all over the world who could not normally communicate

·       Allows you (email) to manage your time and communicate what you want to when you want to rather than having someone drop into the office and interrupt you

·       Enables (email again) higher quality communication with all the facts clearly presented in black and white without emotion in an email - at least potentially

·       Increase communication flow and supports social networking and knowledge management in organisations e.g. company blogs and wikis

·       Reduces wasted time (people tend to digress and interrupt less in telephone conferences) in meetings

And so on. Sure, we can’t see email and telephoning as an alternative to face-to-face communication. It’s a complement. But it’s a virtual complement with plenty of advantages – just read through the above – if we have the virtual skills. And that’s where we step in … to teach virtual English communication skills.

So, are virtual communication skills any different from the kinds of language and communication skills we typically teach in the classroom. I’m not sure yet but I’d like to start the discussion. I think I can identify a few but I’d really like to see if we can collectively build up a little checklist of 10 to start building lessons around. And I’m going to focus initially on emailing as, in many ways, it’s the most virtual medium in the sense of least interactivity. So here goes ... I’ll kick things off!

Virtual communication skill #1

Perhaps the first art of virtual communication is choosing which messages to place in which medium. Put bluntly – should I email, should I telephone or should I meet face to face? The more complex the message, the greater interactivity required (either in terms of clarification, discussion or simply engagement) then the decision should be to go less virtual. How can we train this? Well, simply ask your students to print their last ten sent emails and analyse how appropriate it was to send this message via email or whether another channel or combination of channels could have been used. Check out the replies to these emails to see how high the levels of understanding and acceptance are of the original message, and whether time-wasting clarifications and arguments have been generated.

Virtual communication skill #2

Real-time communication allows opportunities for interruption if you see someone has misunderstood and begins to discuss something irrelevant. Interruption is not a possibility with email so we have to work harder in our original messaging to be more explicit. We probably need to give more background information to support our arguments. We may need to explicitly say what we are not saying – to counter possible interpretations. And we may need to guide the responses of our correspondent by giving them three options to reply – do you think this, this or this? Hopefully, they don’t go off on a tangent but ... you never know.

So – that’s two skills so far: choosing the moment to go virtual and then building clear messages which control how people read and respond to avoid time wasting.

But I don’t know. What do you think? Are there another 8 virtual skills covering email to telephoning? Are there virtual skills at all? Interested to hear your thoughts!


BOB DIGNEN is a director of York Associates. He specialises in intercultural skills programmes and international team seminars which he delivers to clients in Germany, Switzerland, Iceland and Sweden. He is accredited to use The International Profiler (an intercultural profiling tool) and is also an advanced practitioner of TMP (Team Management Profile – an international team profiling tool). As an author, he worked on English365 for Cambridge University Press and has written 50 Ways to Improve your International Presentation Skills. He is also co-author of Developing People Internationally, a multimedia international team training resource.
 
Getting started by Bob Dignen Print E-mail
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Just back from my travels abroad, this time in Zurich running a course on the intercultural aspects of project management. Guess what? At the end of the day, it comes down to managing people through effective communication … in English. And the key point of communication? Asking many more questions … to clarify and, quite simply, to connect with people.

Anyway, after a couple of days of eating far too much cheese, it was back home to do a little one-to-one English training. It had been a while so I had to think a little of how to handle that first hour … the getting started part. And then I realised that my standard opening process – my usual get to know – actually focused on questions and was all about enabling people to connect through questions. So I thought I would share my starting process with you, not simply as it works in the EFL classroom but because it’s also part of international project management at the end of the day.   

My standard start involves circles – around five or six. I put the student’s name in a big circle at the centre of the whiteboard and then around this central image draw circles containing  single words – mine are usually Job, Company, Sector, Travel, Non-work and Objectives with the option of a question mark. The graphic and the words are introduced as the starting point of the lesson - the topics which the teacher will ask questions about in order to get to know the teacher. Then it’s just asking a series of questions around each topic and writing some key words in and around the circles in a kind of note-taking fashion. After around thirty minutes, yes … it can take that long, I use the words to present a short profile of my student, checking at the end if I got all the details right. Then I ask the student to present their own profile to me using the key words, giving feedback on any vocabulary or grammar issues arising out of their effort to summarise themselves.

So far so good? Then comes the clever part. You just change roles. The student now plays inquisitor and does the asking, noting down key words from the answers. Same procedure at the end except this time the student does the first effort at summarising and you do the second. I sometimes throw in one mistake when I summarise myself just to make sure the student listens carefully;)

So, that’s the first hour. It’s fun. It’s dynamic as there’s lots of asking, noting, checking of spellings and then summarising … with a splash of feedback. But there’s more. I usually have half an hour before coffee break (sessions where I work are normally 90 minutes). So I clear the whiteboard and note down another set of key words in the vertical: Job, Company, How long in company, Arrival last night, Host family or hotel, Interests, Tonight and Departure. These, I announce, are some key questions which you will need to socialise with the other students during the looming coffee break. Immediate attention guaranteed! So, I say, what would you ask? I elicit a first effort at questions and then correct these efforts, often with a first analysis of tense differences - what do you do / what did you do last night / what are you doing tonight etc. Then I ask the student to ask me the questions - easy peasy … they read the whiteboard and ask … I answer.

First time around, of course, no problem. Then I erase two of the written out questions but leave the key word as a cue. Ask me all the questions again, I say. Nervous smile appears but the questions are asked, with the erased ones recalled alone or with a little prompting if I’m feeling kind.

This process of erasure continues until all you have left on the whiteboard are the cues with the student having to ask all the questions just from these key words – going from the top key word to the bottom key word. If there are any mistakes in any of the questions, the student has to start again from the top key word until we get a complete run at 100%.

It’s great fun and great learning with lots of simple and repetitive practice which gets some key social lubricators – questions – burned into your student’s psyche. They leave the room after the first 90 minutes energised and able to interact with strangers and facilitate human relationship building … without their knowing it explicitly, they have just become more interculturally competent!

So how do you start? Share your ideas for getting started lessons by leaving a comment.


BOB DIGNEN is a director of York Associates. He specialises in intercultural skills programmes and international team seminars which he delivers to clients in Germany, Switzerland, Iceland and Sweden. He is accredited to use The International Profiler (an intercultural profiling tool) and is also an advanced practitioner of TMP (Team Management Profile – an international team profiling tool).

As an author, he worked on English365 for Cambridge University Press and has written 50 Ways to Improve your International Presentation Skills. He is also co-author of Developing People Internationally, a multimedia international team training resource.

 
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