Here’s one of the biggest problems I’ve been facing myself over the years when dealing with other English speakers:
Sometimes they ask you a question you don’t really expect or you don’t have an opinion on, and as a result you struggle to deliver an immediate response!
What’s even worse – more often than not your inability to deliver an immediate answer to that question will be mistaken for inability to find the right words to say (basically they’ll assume your English vocabulary isn’t sufficient), but it’s obviously not the case if you simply haven’t thought about that subject before!
Let’s assume for argument’s sake you’re walking down the street and you’re suddenly approached by some charity worker trying to talk people into signing up for a monthly direct debit in aid for a particular charity organization – it has happened to me on numerous occasions and I’m sure you’ve fallen victim to those agents as well!
Well, not that I have something against charity as such, it’s just that I don’t like the idea of signing up for yet another monthly payment from my bank account! I always tell those people I wouldn’t mind donating a fiver for a good cause, but the answer is always the same – “We can’t accept any cash, it’s not how our organization works and so on.”
Anyhow, let’s say you’re suddenly stopped by one of those fellas or girls and you’re being bombarded by a substantial amount of information at once:
“Hello mister, do you have a few moments to listen me out? I’m representing organization X – have you ever heard of us? – and we’re helping Y – I’m sure you’ve heard about problems surrounding Y lately – and we depend on people just like you to keep providing these essential services, and…”
At this moment in time there’s a number of different lines of thoughts starting in your mind:
“Do I have time to talk to this person or I don’t? Do I actually feel comfortable speaking with him?”
“Organization X? Yeah, I kind of recognize the name, but I’m not sure…”
“Helping Y? That’s a really good cause, but should I ask him if all my money would go towards Y or organization X are keeping some of it for themselves?”
… and so on and so forth.
All these thoughts happening at once might make your response almost impossible, let alone allowing you to deliver a well thought-through answer! You might start saying something nonsensical, you might make some really stupid mistakes and the agent might think that your English is so bad that you can’t come up with anything reasonable to say!
Then read the rest of this article and you’ll find out how EXACTLY you have to PLAN your answers on occasions when you’re bombarded with all different types of questions or you’re asked something unexpected very suddenly!
Step Number One – Identifying the Real Question
This step is of the utmost importance!
Always remember this – you can’t actually answer a question unless you know what EXACTLY you’re going to say in your reply!
Well, it is common sense and at first you may be wondering how come I’m even bothering to state something as simple as the importance of knowing what one is going to say when responding to a question…
If you analyze it a bit deeper, however, you’ll realize that whenever you’ve had problems with responding to such unexpected questions in a normal way, you’ve been trying to say something without actually having a clear idea of what EXACTLY you’re going to say!
You may have all those thoughts milling in your head, and you’re kind of trying to encompass them all at once, but it’s simply impossible to verbalize all those sentiments and emotions you’re experiencing at the same time:
“Have I got time? Well, I’m kind of rushing to work, yet I may wait a bit, but I really don’t know… (Indecision) The cause is really worth supporting… (Empathy) I could really spare some money … (Willingness to help) What’s a tenner anyway?… (Looking at things from perspective)”
As a result you’re opening your mouth, and all you can say is – “Hello, ergh… well, I don’t know… Your organization? Aah, well… Sorry… Maybe you can tell me more…”
You see, the main problem here is that you haven’t made a DECISION yet as to what you’re going to say! But the thing is – you don’t necessary need to say something:
- smart & intelligent
- long & elaborate
- funny & super-friendly!
You simply need to identify the REAL question and simply ignore the rest of it!
Personally for me the most important aspect is the payments. I don’t mind donating for charity, and I do it quite regularly in fact. It’s just that I don’t like the idea of regular payments out of my bank account because there’s way too many of them already in place!
So the real question which hasn’t been asked by the person yet is the following – “Do you mind signing up for a direct debit and donate to our charity once a month?”
Now that I’ve identified the question for myself, I can stop beating around the bush and provide a relevant answer instead of being all confused and struggling to say anything of a substance.
- Put all emotions aside and try to identify what is the ONE thing you’ll focus upon in your response!
- Read between the lines – the real question YOU have to answer mightn’t be even clearly formulated!
- Don’t try to please the other person and say what you think they want to hear. BE YOURSELF ❗
Hesitation Phrases – Your First Line of Defense
It goes without saying that identifying the real question might take some time, so you definitely have to use some hesitation filler phrases to buy more time and think about what you’re going to say.
Phrases such as:
“Well, let me think about it…”
“Wait till I see…”
“Well, I’m not really sure if I’ve … (heard about it etc.)”
are widely used by English speakers worldwide to fill in gaps during conversations when one needs time to think a little bit about what to say.
The alternative is to remain silent which is not really an option because your conversation partner won’t probably be able to tell the difference between you not understanding what he or she is saying and you being deep in thought!
Admit Openly You Need to Think About It!
If the issue is of a more complex nature, you may want to take some more time to consider the question – hesitation phrases alone won’t do the trick!
Here’s a typical example.
I was doing some admin work at my PC at work and the radio was on. They were discussing the latest gun crime in the country, and there also was a live broadcast from the funeral of the victim where someone put out a call to the government to take action and tackle police staffing problem.
Then my work colleague turned around at his desk and asked me what I thought about the fact that they were using the funeral as a platform of pushing their political agendas.
His question took me by surprise, and I used the typical hesitation phrases to buy a couple of seconds: “Well… How could I put it best…” to ponder his question and think about the fact that political statements are made during a victim’s funeral.
A couple of moments later I actually told my colleague the following: “Hold on a second, I need to think about it. I don’t really have an opinion on it!”
And you know what?
He didn’t stare at me as if I had suddenly grown 2 heads or something.
He didn’t ignore my response and didn’t turn away back to his PC.
He simply waited another 10 seconds or so till I had gathered my thoughts and started telling him what I thought about his question, simple as that!
You see, the problem is that people are generally afraid of admitting that they don’t have an opinion, or that they need a bit more time to think about it.
Especially considering you’re a foreign English speaker, you may think that you’ll be seen as someone who can’t speak properly just because you can’t deliver an immediate answer.
It’s BS, if you ask for my opinion.
Any native English speaker – and also any of your fellow foreigners – with at least a little bit of intelligence will quite naturally understand that you simply need a bit more time to answer the question! 😉
Don’t Look at the Problem as a Whole, Focus on One or Two Aspects Only!
If we’re asked a profound, multifaceted question, we may feel that our answer has to be just as elaborate and comprehensive.
The problem is – it’s impossible to cover all aspects of the question AT ONCE!
You have to start with SOMETHING SPECIFIC.
More often than not, we feel compelled to answer any question in the best way possible, just as if reading from a book, but you have to understand that even native English speakers can’t always deliver a logical, well-structured answer to a question asked in a casual situation.
Let’s say for argument’s sake, you come into work in the morning, sit down at your desk, and prepare to begin your shift.
Next thing you know, your team leader runs in and demands explanation about an incident that happened a day before when an urgent customer’s issue wasn’t taken care of and as a result a message has been received from the Head Office.
Now, you could try to explain to your team leader that:
- you had to cover for your colleague because she was out sick so there was an increased workload;
- there were internal connectivity issues which affected communication speed;
- the customer in question didn’t respond timely enough;
- the maintenance man spilled coffee on your desk and it took you extra 10 minutes to clean up the mess which added to already stretched schedule of yours!
If you’re trying to do it all AT ONCE – especially considering the high-stress situation you’re in – you run a serious risk of messing up your speech because you’ll have different words popping up in your mind trying to force themselves out of your mouth!
Pick only ONE aspect of the whole issue, and focus on it.
Start your conversation by saying: “Sorry John, I understand the seriousness of the situation, but please listen me out! Sarah was out sick yesterday and I had an increased workload so I…”
Ignore all other aspects for the time being.
You’ll get a chance to bring them up when the opportunity presents itself.
For now, explain EVERYTHING you have to say about how Sarah’s absence affected your workload and then see if any further explanations are necessary!
This might sound like childish advice, but believe me – I’ve messed up my own speech on way too many occasions just because I’ve tried to say IT ALL OUT LOUD AT ONCE!
And the really big problem is that you might not be actually aware of all those aspects, you might not have defined them for yourself yet. You simply need more time to do a very simple… PLANNING!
Simple Plan Goes a Long Way!
It’s quite straightforward – you dwell upon the question or the matter at hand and try to identify 2 – 4 specific points you can focus upon when delivering your response.
If I was asked the following question – “What do you think of the dwindling polar bear population on the planet?” – I couldn’t honestly say anymore more than “Well, it’s very sad actually, and yes, I’ve heard that in 50 years’ time polar bears might be extinct!”
If I had 30 seconds to prepare, I could identify 3 distinct aspects of the polar bear issue which would enable me to speak for probably 5 minutes straight:
- polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate which has a really detrimental effect on polar bear population;
- various chemicals are getting into polar bears’ system distorting their hormone levels and making them less fertile which obviously affects their population;
- it’s proven using DNA that polar bears actually originate in the territory of Ireland.
These are just random things I’ve heard about polar bears, but it provides superb content for a conversation! And I’m 100% confident that you would be able to think of at least 2 things to say in relation to pretty much ANY question (unless it’s highly technical) if only you had a few moments to think about it.
Here’s a couple of things you have to bear in mind:
- you don’t necessarily have to put a structure onto your 2 – 4 point plan; they don’t have to follow each other in a logical sequence or anything. Think randomly. Any piece of information that pops up in your mind related to the subject at hand can be added onto the list!
- sometimes telling the other person – “Hold on, let me think about it for 30 – 60 seconds and then I’ll answer your question!” – is not really possible. You can, however, do it in situations when you have some time – such as group conversations when someone else speaks while you’re thinking and then you can go back and put your five cents in (it’s an expression meaning to contribute into a conversation) or when speaking with someone you have a good relationship with.
Let me remind you once more that even though all this advice might sound too simplistic to even consider, believe me – it works! It’s been proven time and time again, and on the finishing note please let’s not forget the old adage – “By failing to plan you’re planning to fail!”
All you have to do to make even complicated and seemingly difficult questions easy to answer is to adhere to the advice I’ve given you in this article, and if you’ve any comments to make on it – don’t hesitate to do so in the comments section below!
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!