GoingFar Interviews: Brigid Farrell, Director at AllTalk Training
Interview by Vithória Escobar; Reviewed by Talita Holzer
After training professionals in workplace communication from all over the world, Brigid Farrell has become a specialist in clear communication across languages and cultures.
Brigid’s mission is to share her expertise with organisations that experience communication and collaboration issues due to cultural diversity.
Brigid founded AllTalk Training in 2017 and, together with the AllTalk Training team, is keen to share how simple changes can lead to higher levels of productivity, better collaboration among colleagues, and a more inclusive workplace for all employees.
In this interview, Brigid talks about working with immigrants and how she sees Diversity & Inclusion today in Ireland.
V.E.: First, I’d like to thank you for your work and for your efforts in addressing the inclusion gap in the Irish market. It gives us hope to see people like you contributing to a more inclusive workplace for immigrants! So, could you start by introducing yourself and your business?
B.F.: I started AllTalk Training to train professionals online in English for the workplace or Business English. Our initial clients were German companies. The employees we were training were mostly dealing with their colleagues in the UK or the US. I, myself, had been teaching English in Germany, Ireland, and Spain prior to starting AllTalk Training.
Before starting our English courses, we always ask our trainees: What is the biggest problem for you at work when it comes to communicating in English? Almost every single time the answer is speaking with native English-speaking colleagues, as they have no understanding of what it is like for them. As a result, they end up being responsible for the clarity of communication.
As an English trainer first and foremost, I know that communication can be made easy by making just a few changes when communicating with somebody from a different cultural background.
So, for many years, I thought that there must be something more we can do about these communication issues. I also began to understand the effect of being a non-native English speaker in a workplace with mostly native English-speaking colleagues. Our trainees would constantly say that they don’t feel confident enough to speak up or, when they do, they feel that nobody takes their ideas seriously. Many also feel like they have a different personality in English because they’re nervous or unsure about the cultural norms. I can also personally relate to a lot of this drawing from my time living and working in Germany and Spain. And again, I was prompted to consider what we can do to help in this case.
So I started to work on how we can help with communication and inclusion issues that non-native English speakers face in English-speaking workplaces. What can the non-native speakers do and what can their native English-speaking colleagues and managers do?
In our business now, we still deliver English training, but we also deliver intercultural communication and cultural integration training to help multicultural teams work better together and communicate better together to make it feel like everybody’s voice matters, regardless of where they come from or their language competency.
V.E.: What inspired you to work with immigrants?
B.F: Well…immigrants! We help people from different cultures to learn about Irish culture so they can integrate more easily here, enjoy life here, and excel in their careers here. This is the cultural integration training and it covers topics from ‘having the craic!’ to typical Irish celebrations, to learn about the style of indirect communication often used by Irish people.
I am also involved in a project called Mi-WOW, run by New Communities Partnership. Mi-WOW helps migrant women get over the main barriers migrant women face when job seeking in the Irish jobs market.
All of the participants in this programme are highly qualified and have vast experience in their areas of expertise, but it is difficult for them to overcome language and culture barriers (among other barriers) to land a job in their area of expertise.
This is such rewarding work because I can see the impact of it on the participants quickly, and I can see that it is also beneficial for our society. When you bring awareness to the difficulties that migrants face, it spreads out into wider society.
V.E.: That’s so great; their work is amazing! How did you get involved with Mi-WOW!
I started working with them in about July last year. I deliver the communication and cultural skills part of the programme. As I said, it is so rewarding — at first, you see women who are broken, lacking confidence, completely lacking all hope that they will find work in a country that is now their new home. They finish the programme with entirely different energy, with hope, confidence, and newfound appreciation for their worth and their skills. It is always very emotional when it comes to the end of one of the programmes.
V.E.: Let’s talk about AllTalk Training’s research. Were there any particular findings that stood out to you?
B.F.: I would have liked to have seen a greater spread of English levels among the respondents — 81% were advanced or near-native, which is high. However, despite the overall high language competency among our research respondents, 61% of them still said that they feel that they need to work extra hard in order to progress in the company or for their work to be recognised. And despite this pressure and extra effort, over one-third of them still said that they do not feel as valued at work as their native English speaking colleagues. So, while I had expected most or all of the challenges that came up in the research to be present, I found it quite striking that there was still such a high percentage of people that share the same challenges, despite the overall high English level among respondents.
V.E.: Based on your experience, this lack of understanding of migrant people is one of the main barriers to entering the workplace?
B.F.: I think it comes back to the lack of shared responsibility for communication and lack of cultural awareness and, yes, overall understanding of the migrant experience. There is also a sense of being unsure of how to deal with cultural differences.
Many people, through no fault of their own, are simply not aware that certain behaviours, policies and communication can exclude others. There is a lack of speaking openly about any issues that arise; people are afraid to address these topics.
Communication is how we relate to our colleagues and managers. There are always at least two people involved in any type of exchange. When it comes to native English speakers communicating with non-native speakers, often a lot more is expected of the non-native speaker than of the native. IN reality, both sides have a responsibility to make sure that the communication is as smooth and successful as possible.
A big issue is also unconscious bias — this can be towards accent, language level, or culture. Depending on where you are from or your cultural behaviours, people can make assumptions if you will be a ‘good worker’ or not, whether you are professional or not, whether you are well educated or not.
Migrants can sometimes get labelled as ‘the foreigner’ in a company. So regardless of their accomplishments or experience, their only real defining factor in their country of origin.
This came through in our research where participants shared their frustrations at always being introduced as e.g. ‘Mari, from Brazil’ rather than e.g. ‘Mari, our marketing associate’.
V.E.: How do you see Diversity and Inclusion for migrants in Ireland?
B.F.: There is a lot of diversity in the Irish workforce in general, when it comes to hiring migrants. However, many migrants still face discrimination in the hiring process, they are often overlooked completely when it comes to higher-level positions despite their experience and qualifications, and many also either do not feel valued at work, or feel excluded to some extent.
V.E.: How can companies address unconscious bias in the workplace?
B.F.: Well, due to its nature, it is difficult to recognise this bias because it is unconscious! And so, this is a lot of the challenge. Companies can help by helping to create awareness of biases against migrants and to do so with all staff members, or at the very least with those involved in the hiring process as well as managers and team leads. Actively addressing cultural differences and discussing them openly can also do so much to create understanding among all employees and this can help everyone to uncover any biases that they may have.
V.E.: I know you must work with immigrants from different nationalities. Do you identify some bias based on their native countries? For example, an immigrant from the U.S.A. and an immigrant from Venezuela.
B.F.: That’s a very interesting question — I think it has a lot to do with the language. English speaking immigrants (such as those coming from Australia, the U.S.A. or the U.K.) coming to work in Ireland are very referred to as expats. “Expat” doesn’t have a negative connotation. On the other hand, “immigrant” is often used in a not so positive manner.
Why are people from non-English speaking countries not referred to as expats as often, if at all? Why do words such as “immigrant” or “foreigner” have a negative connotation?
Also, in Ireland, we speak English, so people tend to connect with other native English speaking colleagues quite quickly. When someone comes from a different language background, it can sometimes take people somewhat longer to determine that they probably do have something in common with them.
When I was living abroad, I remember that even young people were aware of music and movies, for example, from other cultures. Whereas in Ireland, we tend to be tuned into the U.K. and U.S. cultures the most. Maybe for that reason, we feel that there is an automatic common ground that we can connect with each other over. We think we have more in common with those people, but that is not necessarily the case. We all have more in common with each other than we think, regardless of where we are from.
V.E.: Do you think there could be a change in immigrants’ behaviour and positioning that might benefit the community?
B.F.: I love that question because, first of all, this is not about pointing fingers at any one group, but about finding ways to work better together.
One of the main parts of our training for non-native speakers does not necessarily focus on the language alone e.g. grammar and vocabulary, but on how to navigate the cultural differences in communication styles and how to gain confidence in communicating in English.
So, what I’d say to immigrants is to be open about the problem, don’t be afraid to ask for help or support. If you don’t understand a word or a sentence, get comfortable asking, “can you say it differently?” or “what does that word mean?”. You can also openly ask about and discuss cultural differences that you notice. By being open about your problems and sharing your culture, you help to open this conversation in your workplace. This can only lead to good things!