Clear communication is a challenge in any IT consulting engagement. Every business has its own unique culture and “language,” and you never know if what you are saying will come off as constructive give-and-take or a personal attack. Compound this persistent unease with an actual language barrier, like those you may run into while working with international dev or BPO resources, and things can get real dicey, real quick.

Obviously, you must get or pass on information precisely. But you must also build a trust relationship with all parties despite several hurdles, not the least of which is the fact that you are the “outsider” in the equation. Harsh reality: In most international sourcing relationships, there is cultural friction inside the company, and much of it centers on the use of language. If, assuming you are a native English speaker, you blurt out “I really can’t understand what you are saying” on a conference call, you are going to jump on about a dozen raw nerves.

This may seem like one of those “soft skills” that get blown out of proportion — until it blows up on you. Strong English-language skills are considered a key professional differentiator, particularly among managers, in many international IT labor hubs. It’s no small matter to question them, even innocently. Take it from me: Having grown up in a family with deep roots in rural Kentucky, I’ve been known to slip in an occasional superfluous “r” into words (“we need to plan a trip to “WaRshington to discuss this in detail,”) and more than once I have been steamed when someone on a call feels the need to correct me or chuckle. Sure, it’s an insecurity, but it’s real.

So, what do you do when you genuinely can’t understand the spoken language of a team member in a meeting or a direct call? Often, it’s what you don’t do that counts the most. Here are three pointers that I rely on when faced with this problem; they tend to be a tad disingenuous, but then again, a lot of client wrangling is. All for the greater good.

  1. Take most of the blame for the communication problem. Simply say that you are unclear on a couple of details and would like an email follow-up. In team meetings, this will manifest itself in you pushing to establish an additional layer of meeting documentation, but that’s usually a good thing, anyway. In one-on-one conversations, it’s more work, but needed.
  2. Do not rely solely on email. Obviously, written communication is a necessary recourse when the verbal option breaks down. (In fact, it’s the backbone of any successful consulting gig.) You can limit verbal exchanges and push for more email, but completely abandoning quick phone calls sends the wrong, potentially insulting message.
  3. Do not talk to the team leader about the issue. If communication completely breaks down, this may prove necessary, but talking to the team leader about the issue should be your absolute last recourse. Your client organization is dealing with these issues; it will expect you to do the same. And if the team leader is in the international location, they’ve probably been involved in a similar breakdown over the course their career. Again, just a ton of raw nerves to be avoided here.