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Soft Skills as Genre

July 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Image: callcentercartoons.com

When you consider teaching genre, you probably think about emails or report writing. So, conversational discourse, such as the classic soft skills, is probably far from your mind.

However, if you’re looking for a way to introduce the key business soft skills into your teaching, analysing and presenting them as a specific ‘genre’ can make them accessible for teachers and  learners.

Furthermore, a genre approach represents a high impact methodology that gives lots of value through easily applicable communication techniques. It also allows teachers with limited business knowledge to engage with language, not business, while at the same time providing dynamic communication models that learners can easily translate into workplace situations.

Recognising a Genre

Technically, a genre is any communicative act that is associated with a particular structure, language items and conventions – things that the majority of people do when they are performing this act.

If we analyse them, we see that most soft skills neatly fit this pattern. For example, when many people give feedback theyfollow the following structure:

  1. General Positive Statement
  2. Specific Critical Statement
  3. Specific Positive Statement
  4. Advice for the future

If you think about the times you’ve given or received feedback I’m sure you can recognise this structure. In addition, if you think about the language used I’m sure you can make a list including – softening phrases (a bit, kind of, maybe…), modals (you could have, you might…) and indirect sentences (maybe you could think about…).

Finally, anyone who’s had issues with the appropriateness of their feedback has probably discovered the same conventions – the things successful feedback givers do and unsuccessful ones don’t

  • Avoid negative words (problem, criticise, didn’t like etc)
  • Be vague when being negative (one thing I’d say is… rather than you should have…)
  • Stress collaboration (next time we need to…)

Business trainers have been talking about this for years and you can easily find what they have to say through a simple Google search.

Why Teach Soft Skills this way?

For many years, I presented language for a particular situation, such as meetings, and then ran a role play practicing the situation. Like me, you’ve probably noticed that, when taught this way, learners are rarely able to apply new language in the communicative situation.

I believe that the reason for this is the detachment between language input and communication. An answer could be to teach the language within the meeting, in a test teach test scenario for example but I also find that learners do not engage overly in this process.

In my opinion, this is because, although they may tell you they want to improve their ability in meetings, what they actually mean is that they want to improve their communication skills.

By presenting a ‘soft skill’ as a specific genre, you can present high frequency grammar and vocabulary and explain why these language items are so critical for completing the particular skill. You can also embed the language within the specific skill and apply that skill to different situations. For example, influencing can be practicised in a meeting, on the telephone and in a negotiation.

In other words, the genre not only provides a vehicle for the language in the class but also creates a trigger for specific language use in the client’s working environment.

It’s easier to recognise the skill and thus the associated language than pick discreet language items to use when doing business.

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On Soft Skills Coaching

July 14, 2012 6 comments

 Image: freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve recently been sucked into several conversations on whether business English trainers should be retraining as coaches or ‘soft skills experts’. This isn’t a new debate and I’m sure this post won’t end the speculation but there seems to be 2 core issues around this debate:

1. Does Interest in Coaching and Soft Skills represent Client Need or Trainers’ desire to increase their income?

Many people are extremely sceptical about the rush for business English teachers to become coaches and soft skills providers and there is much to the theory that lots of people who choose this option are just experimenting in a rebranding exercise. There has been a lot of debate over the years about what precisely we should call ourselves and how we can best demonstrate what we do to our clients. We all know that most business English courses involve a lot more than language and it’s definitely the case that many courses do cross over into cultural awareness, soft skills and even life coaching in many cases.

I share the frustration of many that we all know that we use a wide range of skills but only get paid for our language competence. It’s also incredibly frustrating that many people who aren’t as good as many of the excellent professionals in our industry get paid considerably more because they have marketed themselves as a soft skills/sales/executive trainer rather than a language professional. However, I have serious concerns over the idea that we should follow our cousins in the soft skills area and attempt to develop a style of coaching that tacks language training onto more general business skills training.

The reasons for this are twofold. Our niche, language training, represents a real need for many of our clients. The problem is not what we do but how we package it. I strongly feel that trying to disguise language development as ‘soft skills training’ not only dilutes our USP as English trainers but also denies the fine tradition of pedagogical development that ELT has gone through. I have had experience of various training approaches including the PGCE and corporate ‘train the trainer’ approaches and the fact is, none of them are as good as the communicative approach we have evolved over the last 40 or so years. What we do is really high quality and we should stop beating ourselves up for how little we get paid and start singing about the myriad fantastic things we do every day in our classrooms.

A second consideration for anyone considering the switch to business coach is the fact that you must take a coaching qualification if you want to be successful and those courses are expensive. Something you should also do is google ‘business coach’ and see how much competition is out there. Is it really sensible to spend a lot of money moving into another saturated market where the successful people have tons of business experience, PhD’s and a track record as long as your arm?  Maybe you should stick with us and help make Business English the credible, professional industry we all want it to be.

But what do we want it to be or:

2. What Core Competencies do Business English Trainers need?

I recently had a conversation with my extremely experienced DOS on why he would always take someone with sound EFL experience over a strong business background to teach in our executive centre. His reasoning was that someone who knows his way around a language point and can manage a classroom has the ability to learn about business and soft skills. Although they’ll never be as good as someone who’s been there and done it, they can be good enough and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. Conversely, someone who comes to language teaching late in life will never have the same grasp of and ability to present language as someone who spent their apprenticeship in a general English class before learning about and specialising in business English. Therefore, they’ll never satisfactorily provide clients with their core need, language development.

The fact is, this ability to explain and manipulate language is the business English teacher’s competitive advantage and, in the rush to up-sell ourselves, we’re forgetting this. Yesterday, I went to an event aimed at helping professionals develop their influencing and persuasion skills. There were lots of conversations about the way people speak and behave in different situations. There also seemed to be confusion about how certain utterances had led to unintended outcomes.

As a linguist, I didn’t fully understand the business situations they were discussing but I could see how the language they were using resulted in negative outcomes. The reason for this is I know not the only the meaning of words and grammar structures but also how they can be inferred in different situations.

This knowledge of discourse, illocutionary force, face and politeness is our competitive advantage. Business coaches often tell people to consider their language but they don’t have the linguistic knowledge to advise people on specific language they might want to use or avoid. We have that knowledge, why aren’t we selling it to our clients?

We’ve had business psychologists and occupational therapists for years but there’s a key competency that’s missing. Pick up any business book and you’ll learn about the primacy of communication but there’s no one analysing the language business people use and advising on what specific elements of communication create conflict and how people can speak to develop relationships.

So, a new title for you, I’m not a coach or a soft skills trainer, I’m a Business Linguist.

So why’s a Business Linguist better than a Business English Teacher?

It’s not really and that’s the point. We all know that business English differs from general English in the language used, specific words, phrases and grammatical structures appear more frequently or in different ways in this genre of communication. But we’ve never taken it any further than that.

If you think about soft skills, all they are is a specific genre of communication. Taking the classic soft skill of feedback as an example, this technique is associated to specific language items that are more frequent when giving feedback than when engaged in normal talk. Furthermore, there are certain items that people good at giving feedback use more frequently than those who are bad at the skill. A classic example is past modals versus future time phrases.

A manager I hated always told me what I should have done and what she would have done if she had been me. In short, she always focused on the mistake and made me feel bad about it. Funnily enough, everyone hated her. Conversely, an inspirational manager I worked for always began feedback by simply stating the problem before saying ‘going forward…’ or ‘next time…’ and then giving practical advice. This language turned the mistake into a learning outcome and thus motivated you to do better next time.

Again, business books are full of this stuff but they never contain the practical language people can use to make a difference because they don’t know how. We, the linguists, know how to do this and are more than capable of building a dossier of effective and ineffective language and providing detailed ‘coaching’ on the language people use and the illocutionary force of such language.

This is a unique skill that business people talk about all the time. They want it but know it’s available. It’s our job to shout about what we do and start delivering in our natural niche.

The Empathic Classroom

April 22, 2012 1 comment

I’ve spent a lot of time teaching small talk strategies lately. The reason is partly because my recent learners have expressed a strong desire and a real need for it. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

Problems:

  •  My learners feel it’s really difficult to engage with people from different cultures and they really struggle to build the same connections that they can in their native language
  • A lot of the time, learners struggle to understand each other due to lack of clarity, not insufficient language (I’ve been teaching high level learners)
  • Learners seem to focus too much on their own communication needs (language accuracy etc) and not the needs of their communication partner

Solutions:

  •  Deep discussions about the learners’ own communication style and the differences between them have led to an increase in empathy and a big change in how learners interact with each other. These conversations were initially led by me but, by building a collaborative environment where the importance of understanding other people is prioritised, learners have grown in awareness and are initiating conversations about each others’ differences and peer teaching is really taking place.
  • By consistently recording learners and helping them identify areas where they are unclear, learners are slowly thinking about how to express things more clearly and, little by little, they are much clearer and easier to understand.
  • These two activities have resulted in learners’ addressing each others’ needs much more openly and negotiating communication much more consistently and collaboratively. They also remember more language input too.

As a result of this exploration, I’ve learnt things about my learners I’ve never found out before and really believe the learners are developing faster as a result of collaborative training and peer teaching.

I’m speaking about these issues at the Business English UK conference next weekend and would love to see you there.

Questions about Politeness in BELF

February 7, 2012 6 comments

Last Sunday about 50 TEFL heads joined Chia Suan Chong’s BESIG seminar on the language of politeness, ELF and how non native speakers can be polite with limited language.

I found this talk extremely well presented and insightful. I particularly took away the fact that Chia’s research showed that many of the politeness gambits I had been teaching for years are not used, even by proficient non-native language users. This made me rethink the breadth, depth and accessibility of the functional language I present in all areas of the classroom. So, seriously big thanks.

However, following up the idea of politeness, I rediscovered this video on mutual knowledge in speech acts that I had watched last year via Viki Hollet’s blog.

This led to a train of thought that has caused me some disquiet about the ELF and particularly the BELF movement when applied to professional learners with real need to use English to complete work based communicative tasks.

The RSA video introduces the concept of ‘mutual knowledge’ (an inherent part of ‘game theory’) and applies it to speech acts.

Why do we ask the pretty girl ‘if she’d like to come up for coffee’ at the end of the date and not ‘do you want to have sex?’

The answer is to preserve lack of mutual knowledge. If I ask her ‘do you want to have sex?’ and she says no, I know exactly why she refused – she doesn’t want to have sex me, she also knows why I refused and we both know each knows. This makes it very difficult to preserve any relationship.

On the other hand, if she says ‘I don’t like coffee’ I am free to continue pretending that she does really want to have sex with me, she just doesn’t like coffee. The girl can also deny that I know she doesn’t want to have sex with me, she thinks I think she doesn’t like coffee.

Thus, the shell of friendship can be preserved.

OK, back to BELF. The type of face saving interaction outlined above is part and parcel of business life. In meetings, negotiations, ‘difficult conversations’ between manager and staff and myriad other cases, business people need to allow their interlocutor ‘plausible deniability’ (refusing to make something mutual knowledge so that relationships can be maintained).

The pragmatics and linguistic dexterity required to achieve this is quite high but is also possessed by a large number of native and non native speakers.

Therefore, if our aim is to provide professional learners with the tools they need to perform in the work place, we have a duty of care to arm them with the weapons of extreme politeness because anything less will result in poor performance.

A while ago, a colleague told me that the German managing an international team is rarely sent on a language course because his poor English is causing problems at work, it’s because he’s German. This means he lacks the ability to recognise different pragmatic expressions of politeness and other speech acts and reacts inappropriately.

Therefore, offering a simplified form of politeness will not improve his workplace performance. He needs his awareness of all forms of politeness raised and to be provided with strategies for recognising these face saving gambits. He also needs help in how to respond in an appropriate way. Anything less than this limits his ability to do the job.

This extract from a recent conference in Japan on the future of the Euro illustrates the point further:

Moderator (Japanese): Jesper, given your German blood, do you think, what my friend tells me, that the German is not going to let the Greece leave has some reality in it?

Jesper: Well, we just going to invade them. (uncomfortable laughter) That would be the old solution. (awkward pause) look…

(Watch the full video here [14.10 minutes in])

For me, this shows the danger of being too simple. We all understand the moderator’s message and can accept that he doesn’t mean to upset anyone. He even trys some softening with ‘has some reality in it’. Even though the question is directly about Germany maintaining the Euro, the bald phraseology causes problems. If he had said ‘Germany is determined to maintain the Euro’ or a similar, less direct utterance, there would have been no problem.

We know the history, we know what people say, but we don’t know (or need to know) that others know that people say it. This maintains social cohesion.

Common knowledge is not the same as mutual knowledge. Even if we know it, we shouldn’t always ‘put it out there’. The moderator’s error is not missing a formulaic politeness marker; it’s a lack of a deeper cultural understanding and linguistic dexterity.

Inadvertently, his message makes uncomfortable common knowledge ‘mutual knowledge’, leading to an unnecessary moment of awkwardness. Can you imagine what could happen if money were at stake?

I know this post may buck the trend but I also think it raises some important questions. If anyone had anything to add, it’d be great to hear from you.

Management Speak

May 26, 2011 2 comments

I had an amazing insight into the differences between management philosophies in different countries today. The group contained a Russian lawyer, a French tax consultant and a Danish oil engineer, all managing at a senior level. The target language was modals, specifically you must, you have to, we must, we have to and we need to. We did a listening exercise focussing on different managers using the various modals to give directions and then discussed which phrases were most likely to result in:

1. Task achievement and strengthened relationships

2. Task achievement and weakened relationships

3. Task failure or subversion

Both the Russian and the Frenchwoman agreed you have to was the best phrase to get results. Must was viewed as too strong and need to too weak. Both could not see the point of saying we stating “but we are not going to do it, you’ are” However much I argued, they wouldn’t buy it, we was a pointless thing to say.They also seemed confused when I tried to explain that saying you have to might upset people.

Fortunately the Dane was on my side, agreeing the we need to  was the most appropriate, stressing the co-operative nature of any business situation and strengthening personal relationships. The other two scoffed, maintaining that the relationship, when giving direction, was less important than the task and it didn’t matter how people felt.

 

The Russian and French learners were also sceptical of my comment that must and have to are pretty much the same, they both maintained that must was stronger. Then the Dane asked “aren’t all the phrases ok if you use we? I gave up and we moved onto a simulation; delegating a task. Unsurprisingly the above opinions were reflected in the language used.

Reflecting on this led me to think of Hofstedde’s ‘power distance’ relationships. Is it a coincidence that the high power distance cultures thought it fine to be extremely directive and the low power distance cultures felt a need to show solidarity in their direction?

And a final point, does this explain why the Frenchwoman’s most difficult team member is Australian (a very low power distance culture). I’ll keep digging!

Does accuracy add value?

May 21, 2011 3 comments

Having politely explained, using a combination of stuttering English and hand gestures, why he couldn’t place an order, Mr Falconio gently moved his German colleague towards the door. As he did this, he stopped, looked Jochim directly in the eye and congratulated him on his perfect use of the past semi modal verb ‘would need to’. On the long flight home, Jochim was left reflecting on the 5000 Euros he had spent on English classes, his inability to complete the sale and his failure to meet his target for the third month in a row. His boss was going to be mad, again!

This, of course, is a fictional (and farcical) account but it raises important questions about what we do in our ESP and business English classes. It’s clear that Jochim’s lessons had a strong focus on accuracy and, no doubt like most learners, he was happy with this as grammatical accuracy shows that one really ‘knows’ a language. This focus probably ticked the teacher’s boxes too as a focus on accuracy is a satisfying and relatively easy way to quantify the learner’s progress and your own teaching.

However, despite all his English lessons, Jochim still can’t close a deal in English. If his classes had focussed on the process of making a sale, how this is done in German and how this differs to English, would he still be finding it so difficult to close international deals?

Yesterday, I observed one of the best lessons I’ve ever seen. The two learners needed English for finance and the trainer had huge amounts of experience in finance and corporate language training, The lesson was high quality in all areas except one; error correction. This was very lean – over the hour I observed, there were three instances of correction – and sporadic – one phonological, one grammar and one collocation correction. In feedback, I asked why there had been such lean correction and feedback? .

Here’s the trainer’s answer:

‘Well, I understand where you’re coming from but, when you noticed mistakes, particularly grammar, did you still understand?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘What about the things I did correct?’ He went on to ask. ‘Well, yes the phonological errors confused me, but the collocation was OK, I understood’ I replied. ‘Yes, you’re right, but it was a financial term, should a financial director use ‘OK’ financial language, or ‘exact’ financial language?’.

The trainer then went on to explain his three reasons for correction:

– Accuracy
– Intelligibility
– Irritation

For him, accuracy is the weakest reason to correct, particularly when learners rarely speak to English native speakers. The only justification for error correction is when what is said causes confusion or, like the old classics ‘I am agree’ or ‘my English is not well’, grates the nerves of the listener like fingernails on a blackboard.

I’m convinced that the majority of trainers would agree with this but how many of us are brave enough to act on this fact in the classroom. In my lessons, I have a tendency to correct everything. There’s certain things I can let go, articles went a long time ago and I’m slowly giving up on third person ‘s’. But certain things, like the German love of putting the frequency adverb in the middle of the sentence, I can’t let pass. It doesn’t affect intelligibility, it’s actually kind of cute, not irritating but I must correct it. Why? Because it’s wrong!

This raises two further questions:

– How will learners feel about lean correction?
– If we don’t correct language, what should we correct?

In answer to the first question, learners regularly mention a desire for thorough ‘feedback’. When digging deeper, their impression of feedback almost always seems to be ‘accuracy’, they’re obsessed with it. Feedback rules my school and many freelancers would be uncomfortable with reducing error correction because, in their opinion, it’s important to them getting good feedback. However, we should be braver and confront our learners with the question ‘how does better grammar help you do your job’? As Steve Flinders said, ‘it’s like the learners have hijacked the agenda’, let’s take it back

Considering Jochim again. I wonder if his teacher had decided focus on his ability to explain and persuade in English, would he have so much trouble closing a deal? If feedback focussed on how convincing or persuasive he was when presenting features and benefits, I’m sure his boss would not be shouting at him on Monday.

I know in my own classes, this form of feedback takes place but not enough and unfortunately, in 99% of the lessons I observe, it NEVER happens.

If feedback focusses on job rather than language performance more, I’m positive learners would be better served, add more value to their organisation and ultimately say ‘I am agree with my teacher, accuracy doesn’t matter, they understand’.