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Redefining oral skills for business

May 25, 2006

Silence may be golden but for those engaged in business interactions it tends to be embarrassing.

Hello again,

In meetings of all levels of formality, people like to be able to talk with confidence, but when using a second language they understandably have inhibitions. They fear they lack fluency, may make mistakes and will thus lose face. As business English trainers...

... I think we need to go beyond what are obvious oral goals and help clients set personal targets.

It is likely that your clients will have completed a needs analysis that gives you an outline of what tasks they use English for. However, you will need to go deeper than this to help them identify the key speech activities they need. From the main list below (not an exhaustive list) you will be able to identify sub-sets of language activity in each category. You might, for example give them a list of speech activities for them to tick according to their requirements (the sub-sets are given for each one).
• Agreeing: summarising, questioning, volunteering to help, reformulating.
• Disagreement: open disagreement, tactful disagreement, alternative suggestions.
• Appraising: giving feedback, identifying real evidence, suggesting and agreeing areas for improvement.
• Asking and answering questions: open-ended questions, yes/no questions, prompts, tactful questioning, evasive replies, refusing to reply
• Asserting: brief statements that are to the point; statements of personal opinion, open-ended questions, distinguishing opinion from fact; seeking opinions of others; seeking solutions.
• Brainstorming: statement of problems, seeking 'how to' suggestions,
• Controlling: exaggerating; interrupting; denigrating; repeating
• Counselling: offering reassurance; asking open-ended questions; reformulating and playing back; encouraging disclosure; supporting solutions; agreeing action plans
• Criticising: objectively describing a situation; analysing causes and effects, offering constructive suggestions, reaching agreed solutions
• Difficulty stating: avoiding direct disagreement by pointing out the problems in a course of action
• Empathising: using non-threatening small talk; using other person's name; using humour; matching interest with appropriate non-verbal behaviour (eye contact, leaning towards other speaker); showing willingness to take the other person's perspective
• Instructing: giving clearly sequenced instructions, checking understanding, reformulating
• Persuading: stating benefits; providing evidence; diffusing objections; summarising
• Praising: being specific; not mixing praise with criticism; confining the scope of the praise to the present
• Reviewing/giving feedback: listing what went well and what needs improving; selecting issues to focus on; generating ideas for future strategy
• Seeking ideas: genuinely inviting suggestions from others instead of proffering one's own; brainstorming

Having identified the activities that meet their needs, you can use the sub-sets to generate practice activities.

It is also advisable to help clients acknowledge the areas in which they feel they need most help. You could ask them to use a scale of 1 – 10 to rate their ease in the following situations:
• Making small talk
• Self introduction
• Participating in face-to-face meetings
• Participating in large meetings
• Talking in front of an audience
• Talking to the press
• Expressing a personal opinion
• Giving bad news
• Making and receiving telephone calls
• Interacting socially
• Giving explanations


I would like to give a suggestion for practice activities to address areas of this kind. Let us take the example of a client who has a supervisory position and may have to criticize a team member for poor work. First list some advice on how to handle such a situation:
• Concentrate on the error, not on the person
• Avoid generalizations
• Provide specific examples of the problems that need attention
• Make helpful suggestions for improvement
• Avoid a one-sided attack
• Avoid insinuations and hints
• Conduct the criticism in private so as not to humiliate the other person.

Next discuss these points to ensure that everyone understands why they are important. Gather any further advice that the participants may offer. Then ask them to role play a situation in pairs. One person plays the supervisor, the other the team member. The supervisor should follow the steps below and the team member should respond appropriately.

The steps are:
• Thank the team member for coming to a private interview
• Ask if she is ready to discuss the standard of her work
• Acknowledge the fact that she is new to the company and that there is a lot to learn
• Say that her reports are lacking in detail and accuracy
• Ask her if she is aware of that
• Say that she is often late in the morning
• Ask her if there are personal problems that make it difficult for her to arrive on time
• Say that some of the clients she deals with have complained that she misses appointments
• Ask her if she can explain why this is
• Ask her if there is anything you can do to help her improve in these areas.
• Set a date for another talk in a few weeks to review her progress.

Hold a debriefing session after the activity and ask how each participant felt about the conversation. Note on the board any useful expressions that came up, add others of your own and ask for other suggestions from the group.
After the debrief have the same pairs repeat the exercise but swap roles.

The approach I am suggesting should allow you to match the oral English you focus on to your clients’ needs more accurately and thus expand their repertoire of useful phrases and give them the opportunity to do some practice in a safe environment.

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