1. Taking Your Turn in a Conversation
We’re talking about ‘taking turns in English conversation’. But, what does this mean?
If you’re playing a game, often you need to take turns. One person goes, then the next person goes.
It’s the same in conversation. One person speaks, then the next person speaks. But, games have rules. What about conversations?
Conversations don’t have rules like games do, but there are several strategies you can use to manage turn taking. Let’s see an example.
Liam: Our holiday was a complete disaster. It rained for the entire time we were there. The kids couldn’t go swimming because the hotel had closed the pool because of the rain. They had nothing to do except annoy us for the whole week. The hotel should have done more to keep the children entertained. I’m just frustrated. We saved up all year for that holiday and I feel like we haven’t had a holiday at all. And the flights? Nightmare! I’ve never experienced anything like it. If you ask me, the airlines should…
Learn more about the topic of holidays with this Oxford Online English lesson: Talking About Holidays in English – Listening Lesson.
Have you been in that kind of situation? Someone is talking, but you can’t ‘break in’ to the conversation.
If this happens, what can you do?
Speakers in English send signals with words, sounds and their bodies when they want to take their turn in a conversation.
Native speakers do this without even thinking.
For non-native speakers, it’s more difficult.
Let’s listen to another conversation. As you listen, think about these questions.
What signals do the listeners give with their bodies?
What sounds do the listeners make?
What do the listeners say as they take their turns?
Got it? Listen and watch.
Molly: So, our holiday in Spain was a complete disaster… It rained the entire time we were there.
Liam: Yeah, it was raining here too! Non-stop!
M: But, the kids couldn’t go swimming because the hotel had closed the pool because of the rain and they had nothing to do except annoy us for the whole week.
L: Well, that must have been difficult, but it’s not the hotel’s fault it was raining what are they supposed to do? It’s bad luck, for sure, but it’s no one’s fault.
M: Yeah…Well… I’m just frustrated! The hotel should have done more to keep the children entertained… We saved up all year for that holiday and I feel like we haven’t had a holiday at all.
L: For sure, I do feel for you. But there’s nothing you can do about it now. Just look forward to the next holiday!
M: Yeah,but… I’m going back to work tomorrow and I feel the opposite of rested! Maybe next year we’ll go to Egypt. It doesn’t rain much there does it?
L: Bring a raincoat just in case!
Did you notice how we were able to take turns? If you want, you can rewind and watch it again.
First, let’s think about physical signals.
To show that you have something to say, you can nod your head while listening.
You can raise a hand.
You can open your mouth slightly to show that you’re ready to start talking.
You can straighten your posture and make eye contact with the other person. Of course, you should make eye contact regularly anyway, but making eye contact can show that you’re ready to talk.
You can also use a combination of these body signals.
Secondly, let’s think about vocal signals. As you’re listening to the other person, you should listen actively. That means you might make noises, like ‘mmm-hmm’ or ‘uh-huh’. When you want to take a turn, you can use these noises with more emphasis. This shows you are getting ready to speak.
Thirdly, you can use words like ‘well’ or ‘so’ when you start speaking. This lets you enter the conversation smoothly. You also heard ‘for sure’ and ‘but’ in the dialogue. Using words like this sends a clear signal to the people you’re talking to; it says “I’m about to start speaking now.”
Get more practice on this topic with our other free video lesson: Natural Conversation Responses in English.
So, what should you take away from this?
Waiting until there is a pause can be too late for taking a turn. Or, like in the first example, there might not be pauses!
You need to show other speakers that you have something to say and that you’re going to start talking.
You can do this with physical or verbal signals, or a combination. Use words like ‘so’ or ‘well’ to enter the conversation and start your turn.
If you can learn to automatically use these signals and phrases in your conversations, you will sound more confident and natural.
2. Holding Your Turn in a Conversation
Do people sometimes interrupt you before you’ve finished speaking?
When we work with English learners, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if someone has finished speaking or not.
Sometimes in classes, I interrupt someone by accident, because I didn’t realise they had more to say.
So, you need to hold your turn. This means you send signals to the people you’re talking to that show you haven’t finished talking, and they shouldn’t interrupt you.
Let’s see how this works.
Liam: So, should we book everything for our trip?
L: We need to book flights, trains, hotels…
M: Yeah… Actually, I had a couple of thoughts about that. First of all, I’d like to spend more time on the islands. It’s a holiday, you know? I don’t want to spend half the time in airports or on the bus. So I think maybe we should visit fewer places, but spend more time in each. Also, I reckon we should just fly straight from Bangkok to the south, rather than taking the train. I know it’s a bit more expensive, but we’ll save so much time.
L: Well… OK, but can I make a few suggestions? I know flying direct from Bangkok is faster, but if we take the train, we can stop at a couple of places on the way. There are some towns where we could spend a day, and I think it’d be interesting. I’ve already done some research so I can show you where I have in mind. And one more thing: I know you said you’d like to focus on the islands, but I’d really like to visit Chiang Mai. It looks really interesting.
M: Hmm… I don’t know… I just feel like it’s going to be too much for ten days.
L: Alright, but can I ask you a favour? At least read a bit about things you can do in Chiang Mai. I think it’ll be worth the trip, and there’s stuff there that you’d be interested in. Just think about it. That’s all I’m asking.
M: OK, sure, I’ll do that.
First, if you have more than one thing to say, you can make this clear at the beginning of your turn.
For example, you can say something like ‘first of all’, ‘to begin with…’ or ‘I have a couple of thoughts about that…’ This makes it clear from the start that you will take a longer turn.
Next, in the middle of the conversation, you can separate your points with phrases like ‘secondly’, ‘also…’ or ‘and another thing…’
These make it clear that you have more to say.
Finally, you can ask rhetorical questions.
Rhetorical questions are questions which don’t need an answer.
Perhaps that sounds strange, but it’s common in natural conversation. For example, you ask ‘can I ask you a favour? or ‘can I make a few suggestions?’ You don’t ask these questions because you want an answer. You won’t wait for the other person to say ‘yes’. Instead, you use these questions to set up what you want to say next. Again, this makes it easier to hold your turn, because the other person knows what’s coming.
Now you already know a lot about turn taking in spoken English. Let’s see one more important point.
3. Giving Up Your Turn in a Conversation
Remember before: we told you that sometimes in our classes, we don’t know when people have finished speaking?
There are two sides to this. You need to show when you haven’t finished, but you also need to make it clear when you have finished, and that other people should speak.
If you can’t do this, conversations can have awkward silences and lose their flow.
Let’s listen to another conversation.
Try to see how the speakers show that they’ve finished their turn.
Also, there’s an awkward silence in the dialogue. Here’s a question: can you tell why it happens? Watch and listen.
Molly: I just realised the other day I haven’t had a proper holiday for years. I’m looking to go somewhere for a beach break this summer. Didn’t you go on a beach holiday last year?
Liam: Yeah, I did… Bali. It was a lovely trip and that part of the world is so picturesque. It also has great nightlife. When I was there, I partied all night and in the morning I went to the beach.
M: Ah, so, the beaches. I’ve heard good things! I’d really like some recommendations…
For sure… some of the more remote beaches are beautiful, with hardly any tourists. They’re harder to get to, but definitely worth the trip.
M: Do you remember the name?
L: Not off the top of my head, but I can look some stuff up later and I’ll send you a message.
M: Well, that sounds perfect to me! Are all the beaches like that?
L: Not so much… the main beaches are packed with tourists, so I’d stay away from them if I were you. They’re packed with people drinking, being loud, tons of souvenir sellers hassling you. But, it’s not hard to avoid them if you’re willing to travel a little further.
M: Alright, thanks for the advice.
Did you notice the awkward silence? It was right after Liam said “I went to the beach”.
Why was there an awkward silence there?
It’s connected to the intonation. Intonation is important for turn taking, especially when you want to show whether you’ve finished speaking or not.
Did you notice how I said – I went to the beach? I finished the sentence with a rising tone.
Rising intonation normally signals that you’ll continue speaking, and this leads to the awkward silence you heard. The listener expected more.
What if you want to show that you’re finishing your turn, and the other person should speak? What can you do?
One way is to use clear, falling intonation as you finish. Listen to the same sentence twice: ‘I went to the beach’.
Which one sounded like I had finished talking?
The second time I used a falling tone, showing that my idea is finished.
Also, you might start to slow down slightly as you finish your idea. Slowing down slightly can send a signal that your turn is finishing, and the other person should speak.
Another simple way to end your turn is to ask a question which needs a response from the other person.
Finally, using hand gestures, like holding up your hand, palm facing up, can give a physical signal meaning “it’s your turn to talk now.”
Sound simple? Maybe, but we often see problems with this. Also, you might be in a situation, like a phone call, where you can’t use physical signals. In this case, you need to have control of intonation and speed to show where your turn ends.
Also, if you’re in a speaking exam, like an IELTS speaking test, it’s not a normal dialogue. In this case, you need to use pronunciation features – mostly intonation – to show that your answer has finished.
Thanks for watching!