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047 How to maintain a one-to-one conversation

How to maintain a one-to-one conversation

Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the Art of Business English This week we are going to work on some useful skills for maintaining a conversation with an individual in English. I know that many people find it difficult to feel confident in social situations and trying to maintain a conversation can be difficult when you are not sure what to say or when you are not feeling very confident. This can be made worse if you are talking to a native person. 

If you are the type of person who struggles with social English or you find yourself not knowing what to say, then you are going to love today’s episode. In the episode I will be showing you how to listen for key words and how to use open questions to promote dialogue. 

With that being said, let’s look at what is covered in today’s episode. By the end of today’s lesson, you will know the following: 

  • How to start a conversation with a person
  • How to use different question types
  • How to use intonation to show interest
  • How to use keywords and the power of listening for elaborating on a topic
  • Simple questions for maintaining a conversation


Let’s get things started. 

How to start a conversation


I want to start by stating the obvious. It can be scary or difficult to start a conversation in English, especially with a native speaker. However, you must take advantage of every opportunity to use and practice your English. So, you need to be confident and not worry too much about what you think other people are thinking. Why? Because most of the things that you think other people are thinking are not even true. You just create these things in your mind.


Let’s take a look at some possible imagined negative thoughts:


  1. I will look silly
  2. People won’t understand me
  3. I won’t understand people
  4. My English is terrible
  5. No one is interested in me


Let’s try and address these negative thoughts before we continue. Firstly, people generally don’t think other people are idiots when they first meet them. Normally an opinion of someone is formed over a period of time. So, avoid thinking that you look silly.


Secondly, most native speakers will always try and understand someone, especially if that person is trying to speak their language. It is the polite thing to do.


Thirdly, it is possible you won’t understand everything, but if you are talking to someone, one-on-one, then you are able to use a wide range of phrases to help clarify ideas. Remember, when talking one-on-one, the other person will make an effort to speak slowly so you understand them.


Fourthly, most people speak better English than they think. You can always ask a native person if they speak Spanish. They will probably say no, so then you can feel better in the fact that you are trying to communicate in English. Another thing to do is have some prepared questions on topics that you are comfortable talking about. If you lead the conversation with questions then you will feel much more confident.


Finally, most people I know are interested in meeting other people from other countries. It is what makes social situations so interesting, especially here in Europe where you can meet a lot of different people from different situations. Therefore, you need to get it out of your mind that people will not find you interesting. I am sure that you have an interesting story to tell. Furthermore, you just never know who you might meet and what opportunities or doors are opened up for you.


If you are interested in taking a short course on communication skills then I will link to it in the show notes. It is a small course I created that is free for people to take and to motivate you to improve your confidence when socialising in English.


Now that we have overcome our invented excuses for being afraid of socialising, let’s look at some expressions we can use to start a one-on-one conversation.


Let’s start with some tips.


  1. Be friendly, by that I mean, just smile and say hi. You have no idea how far a good smile will take you in this day and age.
  2. Be yourself. Don’t try and act like a hero and don’t try and make up stories to sound amazing, people will like you for who you are and if they don’t then screw them.
  3. Be honest, like I said, don’t invent stories or tell tales because you think it will make you look better.
  4. Ask questions, great way to get started and show interest in others.
  5. The best socialisers are those who listen.


So, what can you say to someone to get a conversation started.


A great way to start a conversation with someone is by asking an open question or by using a question tag. I’m going to explain them in the next part, but here are a few expressions you can use.


Excuse me, is anyone sitting here? Or Do you mind if I sit here?

Hi, I was wondering is this your first time here? I was hoping you could tell me… (here we would include something related to the context of where you are meeting the person. For example, at a conference you could say:


“Hi, I was wondering if this is your first time here? I was hoping you could tell me what time the guest speakers usually finish each day.”


This is called breaking the ice, and from here you can develop a conversation with questions.


Let’s take a look then at the type of questions you can use to start a conversation and then maintain it.


Different question types


In this part of the episode I will be looking at 4 question types. Three question types are very useful for starting and then maintaining a conversation, while one is not so good.


Here I want to look at open questions, closed questions, negative questions and tag questions.


Let’s start with open questions. If you want to be good at maintaining a conversation, then you need to be good at forming open questions. Open questions are also referred to as WH questions. By this I mean questions that use interrogative pronouns such as, when, where, why and how.


Many non-native speakers have problems with forming the correct question structure. The typical mistake is forgetting to put in the auxiliary verb, for example, do or does. Let me show you.


We form questions in English with auxiliary verbs.


  • Do you like coffee?
  • Did you go to work yesterday?
  • Will you buy me something from the cafeteria?


These are all examples of closed questions, I am going to explain them in more detail later.


To make open questions we need to place the interrogative pronoun before the auxiliary verb. Like this:


  • Why do you like coffee?
  • What time did you go to work yesterday?
  • When will you go and buy me something from the cafeteria?


These are all open questions. Open questions are great because they require a person to answer them with further information.


As I mentioned, the typical mistake that people make when trying to form an open question is to forget the auxiliary verb. So, the question may sound like this:


  • Why you drink coffee?
  • What time you go to work yesterday?
  • When you go to buy me something from the cafeteria?


So, in order to maintain a conversation, we need to do two things, use open questions and make sure we use the correct structure by including the auxiliary verbs.


Right, let’s quickly cover the second part, closed questions. As I mentioned before closed questions are formed with auxiliary verbs and they don’t include any interrogative pronouns. In general, closed questions should be avoided when trying to maintain a conversation because they can be answered with a yes or no answer. If we ask closed questions, then we can follow them up with an interrogative pronoun and said with a rising intonation. Take a look at this example:


“Do you like coffee?”

“No, I don’t”



This way, we can get people to provide us with more information.


Let’s quickly cover negative questions. These are a subtle way of involving the other person as well as giving your opinion. For example, you could say:


“Don’t you think it is a bit hot in here?”

“Didn’t you attend this conference last year?”

“Don’t you agree that this is a fascinating trade fair?”


By using negative questions, you make it easy for the other person to answer straight away. These are in some ways similar to tag questions.


Let’s look at tag questions now. Tag questions are a great way to make it easy for someone to engage you in conversation. To form tag questions, we can do the following. They have a negative and a positive form.


The positive form is with an affirmative statement, something that is easier for Spanish speakers and then followed by the negative tag at the end. Let’s look at an example:


“You like coffee, don’t you?”


The negative form of a tag question has a negative statement, followed by a positive tag.


“You didn’t go to work yesterday, did you?”


Tag questions are great for starting conversations as they make it easy for someone to answer.


Let’s look at some example sentences for starting a conversation:


“Nobody is sitting here, are they?”


Here you will notice that we are using the verb to be, so we don’t use the auxiliary do or does.


“This is your first time here, isn’t it? I’ve never seen you here before, my name is Andrew.”


“We haven’t met before, have we?”


In this example, I have used the present perfect, so the auxiliary used is have.


Well, that wraps up this part of the episode, let’s take a look at how we can use intonation in our voice to show interest.


Using voice intonation


There are a few words or expressions that we can use with intonation that can really help us to show interest in what the other person is saying. Some common examples are:


  • Right
  • Oh, Really
  • Wow, I had no idea
  • Interesting
  • Why


By using a rising intonation, we can show that we are interested in what people are sharing with us. This is an important skill to learn and it is related to active listening. I will go into detail in another episode about this.


Let’s wrap things up by looking at how we can listen for keywords and then use them to build on a conversation once it is started.


Listening for keywords and building on a discussion


One of the most important aspects of developing a good conversation is being able to listen and then ask targeted questions. When we listen to what someone tells us we need to be focusing on the keywords. Many students tell me that they don’t know what to say, and this is because they are not listening to what people are telling them. In fact, they are worrying about what they should be saying to the other person. This strategy is not effective, we can use the information being provided to us by the other person to help develop our questions and continue maintaining the conversation.


Let’s take a look at how this works in this following dialogue.


“You don’t mind if I sit down, do you?”

“Of course not.”

“Hi, my name is Andrew, pleased to meet you.”

Hi, I’m Mark, nice to meet you too.”

“Is this your first time here?”

“No, I came to this event last year?”


OK, so we have sat down and introduced ourselves to someone we don’t even know. Then we have led with a simple question and now we need to focus on the keywords in the person’s reply to generate our next question. What are the keywords or main idea?

came                   last                  year


So, now we have some fuel for our next question. Can you think of something to lead with for your next question?


I have a couple. We could say:


“How was it last year?”

“Why did you come back?”

“What brings you back this year?”

“How are you finding it this year compared to last?”


Or, we could lead with an intonation-based word to further demonstrate our interest.


“Oh really, what was it like last year?”


From here you can go on to ask simple, generic questions or more specific ones based on the person’s responses.


However, remember to take turns, you can’t just fire questions at someone like you are some kind of police officer. Don’t forget to share some information about yourself.


So, let’s wrap things up with a list of simple questions.


Questions for maintaining a conversation


  1. So, where are you from?
  2. What do you do? (Remember, this means, what is your job)
  3. Who do you work for?
  4. What brings you here today?
  5. Is this your first time here?
  6. Do you come here a lot?
  7. Do you know much about the area? (Here you can share some information about your city or village)
  8. Do you get a chance to travel much?
  9. What are you into? (This means what are your hobbies and interests)
  10. How long have you lived in Spain for?


Obviously, there are many more, but once you get started and listen for keywords then you will be on your way to having a great one-on-one conversation with any English speaker.


Final thoughts


Well, that is all we have time for today. I am sure you have found this episode useful and if you have then share it with your friends and family. If you haven’t already subscribed then head to www.theartofbusinessenglish.com/subscribe and there you can sign up via email, iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher.


If you haven’t done so already take a look at a Short Course on Communication over at the AOBE website. Remember that we also offer all our visitors a free month of membership to our site so that you can get access to the episode transcripts, the quizzes, pronunciation exercises, forums and free weekly live coaching with me and my team. All of this is incredible value at only 5$ a month.


Finally, make sure you keep sending me your questions, you can email me directly at [email protected] and I will personally respond to your queries. If you want to come on to the podcast then let me know, I would love to have any of my listeners on for a live coaching session.


Well that is it from me today, take care and see you all next week, bye for now.


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Andrew is the CEO and founder of the Art of Business English. Besides teaching and coaching native Spanish speakers in Business English, he is also passionate about mountain biking, sailing and healthy living. When He is not working, Andrew loves to spend time with his family and friends.

Andrew Ambrosius

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