Conversation Technique: Don’t Kill the Conversation. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.

kill the conversation

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

There a fewer better ways to kill a conversation than to do one of these after being asked a question:

  • Say nothing for a long time while trying to think about what to say.
  • Say, “Ummmmmm. Ahhhhh” for a long time while trying to think.
  • Just say, “I don’t know.”

It’s quite common for ESL students to be in situations like this.  They are asked a fairly common question like, “What will you do this weekend?”  Then their brains have to imagine what their plans are and how to explain those plans often using their limited vocabulary and grammar knowledge.  That process can take time.  In the meantime, knowing that the questioner is waiting for an answer to a question that would be easy to answer in his/her own language, the student is feeling pressure to answer quickly, feeling embarrassed that it is taking so long and feeling stress from appearing foolish.

In the meantime, the person who asked the question can often feel impatient or frustrated while waiting for a response.  The questioner will wonder if the students didn’t understand the question or if they don’t know what to say or if they just aren’t interested.

Too often in situations like this, the conversation dies and the questioner moves on to talk to someone else, and the students is left feeling foolish and abandoned.

This activity will lead students to learn a technique that completely prevents that from happening. It’s called, “Don’t kill the conversation.”

Here is how it works and here is a link to the activity handout.

Basically, the technique involves a two-step response to the question:
(1) Acknowledge the question, and
(2) Return that question back to the questioner

Two examples
Analyn: What’s your favorite movie?
Kenji: (1) I’m not sure.  (2) What about you?
Analyn: I like a movie that is kind of a fantasy but makes you think, so I liked Ground Hog Day, even though it’s kind of old.

Miguel: How much money do you make at your part-time job?
Ha-yoon:  Umm, ahhh, I’d rather not say.  How about you?
Miguel: I make about $9.00 an hour, but I think I should ask for a raise.

The expressions for (1) acknowledging the questions are:

I don’t really know.
That’s a good question.
I’m not sure.
I have no idea.
I’d have to think about that.
Umm, ahhh, I’d rather not say.

 The expressions for (2) returning that question back to the questioner are:

What do you think?
How do you feel?
What about you?
How about you?

Students can use this technique in a variety of situation.

  • When they don’t know what to say. (“What is the best new video game?”)
  • When the question is embarrassing. (“How old are you?)
  • When they don’t really want to answer the question. (“How do you feel about the students in this class?”)
  • When the question is a difficult one to answer. (“What is your opinion about nuclear energy?”)

Keeping or Killing the Conversation activity

In Exercise 1, student are introduced to the technique by filling in blanks in a dialog.  This serves as a model for the group work.

In Exercise 2, there are three steps.

  • Step 1: Students work in triad, Students A, B and C.  They read their questions (which their partners can’t see) and respond to each other by using the technique.
  • Step 2: With their partners, they write some questions.  (This is a chance for them to customize the activity.)
  • Step 3: They change partners, form new groups of threes, read and respond to their partners’ questions.  (You’ll probably notice that the volume of students’ voices is raised and laughing increases in this step.)

(For more details about the effectiveness of the customizing Steps 2 and 3, see Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises) )

Here is the link to the handout activity which you can use with your students. Don’t kill the conversation Activity ABC

For more pair work activities like this, see  Conversation Strategies for intermediate-level students and  Basic Conversation Strategies for lower-level ones.

David Kehe

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