Some of my students are great conversationalists who thrive talking to new interesting people, but for others having to maintain a conversation with someone they don’t know that well is a truly daunting task. I personally am more of a quiet type, and I deeply sympathize with people who have this problem. I remember, when I first started out teaching, being positively terrified by meeting some of my students on the underground: inexplicably, having chatted with them effortlessly in class, I completely froze and didn’t know what to say the moment we stepped out of the classroom.
When it comes to intercultural communication, the issues of shyness and not knowing how to break the ice or fill the awkward pauses may be additionally complicated by the fact that different cultures might expect different behaviour during the conversation. For example, in her IATEFL presentation on The Pragmatics of successful business communication, Chia Suan Chong gave a very interesting example of how politeness and the wish not to interrupt may be interpreted as lack of interest:
Allyson: You won’t believe what happened to me today!
Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.
Allyson: Right, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!
Jun Sook: Huh?
Russians make another good example: we use back-channeling (i.e. small noises and comments that show you’re listening and interested, like ‘Mmm?’ and ‘Interesting’) a lot less than English or American people, and a typical reaction when some of my students notices the question ‘Really?’ in a transcript is to giggle and ask, ‘How come she doesn’t believe him?’ We also have quite different body language, so a lot of my students avoid making eye contact, and hardly use any gestures when they speak.
A few weeks ago a team of engineers at my company needed to entertain a customer (something that they normally don’t do) and I needed to teach a short course designed to help them brush up their English and conversation skills. Here’s one of the lesson plans that was part of the course. It is designed to help learners maintain conversations more easily by
- asking a range of follow-up questions more skillfully and
- using some ‘active listening’ techniques, namely, showing interest verbally (through short interjections and comments) and non-verbally, through eye contact and body language.
Length: 90 minutes
- an editable Worksheet
- a projector or a laptop to show the video
- a deck of cards (you’ll need around 8 cards for each student – printed out cards will do)
If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download the .pdf from Slideshare:
Task 1. S/s discuss in pairs for 3-5 minutes. Brief feedback.
Task 2. The purpose of tasks 2 and 3 is for the students to notice the differences between the way they show interest / encourage the other speaker to continue and the way Americans do that.
For task 2, split s/s into groups of three or four. Two people in each group are talking (Task 2), the remaining students are analyzing their conversation (Secret task on last page). Allow 2 minutes for Student As to read the task, then let Students B and C talk for 3-4 minutes.
Task 3. Elicit from Student As what they were looking out for and board the questions. Conduct brief feedback, then focus the class on the first three questions: (1) How do they use their hands? (2) Do they make any eye contact? (3) How do they show that they’re listening? Explain that you’re going to watch a short video of two IT professionals discussing their work. Explain that the topic is quite technical and that the students’ task is to ignore what the speakers are saying and concentrate on questions (1), (2) and (3). Play the video.
(1) How do they use their hands?
They use hands a lot to illustrate what they’re saying
(2) Do they make any eye contact?
They make eye contact occasionally, but they don’t look each other in the eye for more than a few seconds.
(3) How do they show that they’re listening?
Non-verbally (they’re sitting half-facing each other and they nod a lot)
Verbally (they use ‘small noises’ (Huh-huh), make short comments (Right), and at one point ‘echo’ by reformulating a key word (3:28: ‘They’re still on the same visit’/’The same session’).
Play the video again, this time stopping after each example of back-channeling and asking the students to repeat it.
Task 2′. Get the students to repeat the same task in new pairs – this time nobody is doing the secret task and the objective is to (1) use more interesting gestures while you’re speaking and (2) show interest by body language, small noises and short comments.
Task 4. The aim of tasks 4 and 5 is to extend the students’ repertoire of short comments used to show interest and to give them controlled practice coming up with follow-up questions. Refer the class to Task 4 and ask them to sort the reactions. Conduct brief feedback.
Follow-up: Elicit answers to the following questions:
1. What word makes follow-up sound more friendly/conversational? (So).
2. What words make comments work more natural/conversational? (So, then).
3. What is the structure of the comments? (Short reaction, e.g. ‘Really?’/’Yeah’/’Exactly’ + a longer comment).
|One- or two-word comments / echoing key words.||Follow-up questions||Comments that work as follow-up questions||Comments about yourself|
|Really? What was that like?Why did you decide to leave your start-up?
So, were you working on the same project back then?So when exactly did you start with this?
|So you know the company pretty well then.
So you have been working here for quite a long time now.
|Really? That’s interesting because…
Yeah, I had a similar experience. I ….
Exactly. I think…
Refer the class to Task 5 and ask to come up with more short comments / follow-up questions and comments (do the first line together, then allow the students to work in pairs).
Task 6. Distribute cards to students and put them in new pairs. Explain that in this task they’ll chat about the questions and they’ll need to use the cards to know how to react: by showing interest using body language, by asking follow-up questions, by making comments that serve as questions or by making comments to share something about themselves.
Task 7. Either as a follow-up or for homework, get the students categorize the questions in Task 6 and come up with more questions. Use those questions for another revision/communication activity next time.
For homework, share the links to the following two resources:
Quora thread Meeting New People: What is the best way to start an engaging conversation with a stranger?
Lifehacker thread What’s Your Best Ice Breaker When Meeting Someone New?
Ask the students to read them, choose their favourite tips and share them, either in the next lesson or on your facebook group/blog, if the group has one.