Dealing with change

So, I haven’t blogged for almost 6 months… I can’t believe it. Time flies when you’re having fun, but it unfortunately also flies when you’re dealing with upheaval. The last 6 months count among the most stressful times in my career. I’ve held a managerial position in a language and communication training organization for the last 5 years, and we recently lost a big customer. I say big – it was over half our business. It’s threatened jobs, caused an awful lot of lost sleep, and changed the entire way our company works. We had been restructuring the language programme for our customer according to their suggestions, but we hadn’t seen their decision to end the contract coming. At first we were shell-shocked and couldn’t think straight. Next came the bitterness and ill-feeling – how could they???   After that came acceptance – we can’t do anything to reverse their decision, so we’d better deal with it, quickly. And, now we’ve come to terms with the change and have come up with an action plan – we’re embracing the change and developing new and exciting concepts which are taking off slowly – but very steadily. Apparently these are typical reactions to change. According to research by Kubler-Ross, people demonstrate a fairly predictable set of emotions when changes take place, as you can see from the diagram below.


Change needs to be understood and managed in such a way that people can cope with it effectively. Organisations need to ensure that their staff understand what changes are being made and why. They also need to involve them in the change process, giving them an opportunity to influence the change. Face-to-face communication and dealing with questions and concerns sensitively is essential. I’ve spent the last few months trying to support my colleagues in a number of ways:

  • Helping to communicate the reason for and implication of the changes to our trainers.
  • Assessing the impact of this change on our business and its structure.
  • Making sure trainers have help and support during times of uncertainty.
  • Assessing training needs driven by the change, and defining when and how this will be implemented.
  • Identifying success indicators for change, and making sure we regularly measure these.

And now, finally, my head’s just popped back above water… I’m still kicking my feet and I’m aware that the tide of change could pull us all back in again, but I’m quietly confident that we’ve dealt well with a sticky situation and things are on the up. I’ve prepared a lesson plan for anyone whose learners deal with change management – both reacting to change or actively implementing changes in the organisations where they work. It gets them talking about what change is and how it works, particularly in terms of how people react. You can find it here. If you find it useful, you can also try this lesson I wrote as a follow up, which guides learners on how to announce changes. As always feedback and comments are welcome, and if you’re subject to any changes at the moment, then I hope they’re all exciting ones!

Come on – convince me! How to structure a professional argument.

I recently taught a group of very challenging learners – scientists from a research organization who are experts in renewable energy sources.  They are all highly intelligent individuals – rather intimidatingly so- and I had a great challenge in designing tasks which would meet their needs.  The reason?  They all play completely different roles in the organization and there is no direct overlap in the tasks they performed.  After conducting a needs analysis with them – which required an extra amount of prodding and probing in order to draw out ideas of how we could structure their training, I was able to identify a number of language strategies which they all need in their roles.


One very interesting point which they all raised was that they wanted to use more complex structures and speak in much more complex sentences.  At B2 level I took this to mean that they wanted to use longer sentences with more complicated, vocabulary.  To me as a trainer, this may be what they think they want, but it is often quite the opposite of what learners need.  When conversing with native and non-native speakers it’s essential that learners of English are able to negotiate meaning in order to make sure they are mutually comprehensible.  When using overly complicated language the chances of them doing this diminish rapidly.


When I asked them to explain why they wanted to speak in a more complex way they went on to articulate that it was more about understanding and using complex structures in certain situations.  They all have to attend meetings and take part in negotiations and discussions regarding funding of projects.  It’s essential that they put forward a structured, convincing argument for why they should be awarded funding, and they felt they weren’t able to do this effectively.  Making a convincing argument requires that you get all the facts straight and present them in a straightforward manner.  Argumentation is a skill, so proficiency in it can only come after preparation and practice.

Here’s my take on how to prepare a convincing argument, whether it be part of a meeting, a negotiation, making sales or when dealing with conflict situations.

  1. Do your homework – you can’t make a convincing argument unless you’ve found out the facts.
  2. Have a clear opinion and stick to it – if you waiver from one point to another you’ll convince no one.
  3. Support your opinion with examples and reasons – backing up your argument will make it stronger and more credible
  4. Don’t be afraid to refer to other opinions you disagree with, but make sure you can contrast them with your own.
  5. Reformulate and summarise so that the listener has a crystal clear picture of your argument and what it represents.
  6. Remain calm when presenting your argument – a professional and emotion-free view is more likely to be supported than one which is aggressive, overly assertive or emotionally charged.

Golden rock

A structured argument will set you apart from the rest and make sure you come across in a convincing, professional way.

If you have learners who also need practice in this skill, feel free to try out this lesson plan.  I’d love to hear how it went and how well your learners were able to construct their arguments after using this lesson – drop me a line and, of course, feel free to share with other teachers and trainers who might find it useful!

Small talk your way to a great negotiation

In our business English classrooms we’re used to teaching transactional language –the kind of language that our course participants need to use to get things done.  This might be emailing or telephoning, or it could be conducting interviews and giving appraisals.  What we often overlook, however, is the equally important relational language which learners need, the language which helps them ‘make friends and influence people’, if you like.

Small talk is a rapport building strategy which helps to develop trust, a willingness to cooperate and the sharing of information.  Surely an essential skill then?  I certainly think so.  Small talk plays a vital role in a wide number of communication tasks.  In negotiations, the development of rapport fosters the cooperative behaviour which is needed to achieve an efficient outcome.  This is even more effective if the negotiation partners communicate face to face, but emails and telephone calls which begin with small talk and rapport building are also more successful then communication where rapport isn’t established.


It seems to me that, at a time when the quantity of communication our learners participate in is increasing, and the number of channels of communication is constantly expanding, we need to ensure that our students of business English focus on both relationship-building strategies and not just getting things done.  One way is to integrate rapport building and small talk into a wider variety of the functional situations which we present in class.  I’ve put together a lesson plan on this topic.  It’s available here and aims to demonstrate how small talk is an important stage before a negotiation.  The participants can identify strategies for making and maintain small talk, before moving on smoothly to the negotiation.  They can then take part in a role play before creating their own simulation of a negotiation situation which they face frequently.

If you’re interested in learning more about small talk and rapport building in business, then join me for my BESIG weekend workshop online on 5th May (The business English special interest group of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language).  I look forward to seeing you there!

A paper-free lesson: the half way point in my 30 day teaching challenge

So, I’ve gone two weeks now without worksheets, and for the majority of the time it’s been pretty easy.  If you read my last post you’ll remember that it wasn’t for love of the dogme approach that I decided to spend 30 days teaching with nothing more than pictures.  I’ve felt for the last year or so that my teaching techniques have been getting a bit stale, and I thought that by setting myself a few challenges, I’d increase my own motivation, as well as identify new methods of teaching which my learners enjoy.


Last week I taught a relatively new group of business English learners.  Due to holidays and work commitments it was the first week when all group members were able to attend.  In order to find out more about them and what their job involved I played a variant on the ‘name 5 things’ game, where learners have to brainstorm  examples for a particular category.  In my version of the game they had to think of five examples for work-related categories:
  • Places which are/have been significant to your job
  • Pieces of ‘equipment’ which are important for your job
  • Dates/times with a special importance for your job, work or career
  • Special words/expressions used in your job on a daily basis
  • Skills which are needed in your job

I started out by writing an example from my job on the flipchart for each category, and getting them to ask me questions to elicit the significance of each item.

My examples were:

  1. Place – Dresden (my first teaching job in 2000)
  2. Piece of equipment – USB stick (it has all my teaching materials on it!)
  3. Dates and times – June 2008 (when I moved to Ulm to teach)
  4. Special words/expressions – attendance sheet (I need it to get paid 🙂 )
  5. Skills needed: creativity!

When they correctly guessed what the word or expression meant, I wrote the category on the flipchart too.  Once all five categories were up there, I gave everyone 5 minutes or so and asked them to brainstorm five responses to each category, based on their own areas of work or career.  Then in pairs they discussed  their answers.  As the participants in question were a little shy, I asked them to tell their partner three things about each response, and the partner should ask them at least once question.  That meant that at the end of the session, each person in the class had shared 75 pieces of information, and answered 25 questions, all without a single worksheet being handed out!  Not bad, huh?

Of course, this isn’t as tricky as communication skills training, but all the same it was an excellent activity for facilitating work-specific discussion and generating vocabulary directly related to the learners’ jobs.  If you’d like to try this lesson out you cand find a complete lesson plan here.  As always, your views, ideas, and feedback are welcome!

New Year, new groups – a board game with a difference!

A new year brings with it new challenges, good intentions and usually quite a bit of work!  Many companies set training goals for the year with their employees around now and this is a time when lots of people decide to stop making excuses, and to register for that business English course they’ve been planning to take for months, if not years.  It’s important to show new groups that you’re a professional trainer who has the skills and expertise to deliver quality training.  This involves identifying needs, discussing materials and course design, as well as identifying learning styles and, where applicable, negotiating assessment.

I’m planning on getting my year off to a conversational start. I’ve developed a board game which I’ll be playing with my new B1+ – C2 groups, and which will help me in a number of ways.  I’ll be able to find out who they are, where they’ve come from, how they like to learn and I’ll acquire a basic impression of which language learning objectives they have.  Secondly I’ll get a clearer picture of their current level of spoken English, and can identify areas of language work which I believe the learners may benefit from.  With tailor-made training a first day activity such as this helps create a relaxed atmosphere.  Along with a thorough needs analysis, this should help you get to know your learners and establish rapport, getting the course off to a great start.

If you’d like to try this game out you can find a copy here.  Please leave a comment and share your experiences.  In my next post I’ll be sharing some ideas for carrying out needs analysis in a more dynamic and creative way.  I look forward to getting 2013 off to a productive start and wish you all the same!

The Power of Social Commerce

I recently attended a talk in my local chamber of commerce on the power of social media in business.  I live in Germany, and believe that German companies have been a little slow to admit that social commerce is making dramatic changes in how companies operate.  Many of my learners have expressed mistrust of online financial transactions, many are sceptical about shopping online and few of the senior managers I teach seem to credit social commerce with having an impact on the way their customers develop brand loyalty.

On the way home I thought that this would make a great topic for an English class.  I prepared a lesson plan based on a fantastic infographic I found online.  It clearly and concisely explains the psychology behind shopping online and provokes an interesting discussion in business English classes.  You can access my lesson here  Drop me a line and let me know how it worked in your class.  If you’d like to suggest any activities to  extend the lesson, or just exchange views, then I’d be delighted to hear from you.