Problem Solving in Business English

Problem solving helps the students with their language learning and to find solutions as well! (Image taken from

As I have mentioned before, this year I teach mainly adults in a number of contexts: some work in banks or various companies (software, packaging). Very often they have meetings to attend, where they are asked by their colleagues and managers to help resolve problems or conflicts. And they have to do it…in English! What I do with them (not something ground-breaking, a very simple idea) is that I try to think of potential problems they may have at work, such as:

1. What do you do if a colleague of yours is constantly late?

2. What happens if your boss asks you to work with your team at the weekend to finish off a project (and you are not that keen on working weekends)?

3. You have been working for months on installing a new computer program for the company / bank and they call you from the US in the middle of the night, asking you to resolve a glitch then and there! And other issues like that.

Of course, because I am learning their line of work from them (there are so many terms especially in IT and as I have recently learned, in packaging too!) I ask my students what kind of problem they would expect to face at some point. I make a list of all these and prepare role-plays and use them with them (some can be used with many groups!). This idea is also in the amazing book Five-Minute Business English Activities by Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton, under the title of Crisis! – the idea is to present the students with a crisis they need to solve. Most of the times I come into the room, putting on a dramatic face in order to set the crisis atmosphere and announce: People, we have a problem. I was fired! or Our new system is down! or something like that. It is unbelievable how they play into the drama and participate! Depending on the culture you are teaching in though, care must be taken not to scare the students or create unnecessary panic. For example, in some cultural contexts I cannot imagine the teacher going into the classroom dramatically yelling that there is a crisis. It would make the students uncomfortable. This activity has helped my students a lot, as they are pulled into it by the nature of it. They do not even realise when they start speaking and we get lots out of it. Sometimes we get lots of laughs too!

8 thoughts on “Problem Solving in Business English

  1. Hi Vicky! Yes, you are absolutely right. This is what every teacher should do. To put yourself in the position of your student and start solving his/her problems in English.

    Great post!

  2. For the contexts you mention that this would make them uncomfortable: if they are real situations that they would encounter in their workplace anyways, they need to learn to deal with it in English regardless of their discomfort, right?

    1. Hi Tyson!

      Hm. I know what you mean – perhaps I didn’t express it precisely. I meant the discomfort of how I would announce there were a problem. For instance, I have used heavy dramatisation with Greek students – the Greek culture is more direct and very expressive with gestures and a tone of voice which can be a bit louder. I couldn’t imagine going into a group of Asian students for instance, and being so intense in my emotions. I would do it more low-key. The same with Swiss students.

      The problem would still be there (I get your point!) but the way I would express it to my students would differ : )

      Thanks for your comment : )

      1. I see what you mean now. The delivery should match the context (both situationally and culturally). I have to say though that Koreans can be overly dramatic. Catch Korean parliament someday; it’s like a Jerry Springer show.

  3. You couldn’t have said it better! : )

    Really? Like a Jerry Springer show? Wow, I should see that once. I must have had an image closer to the Japanese then.

    Thanks so much for your input!

  4. Culturally appropriate – that’s right! Meaning that I can no way imagine my Business students being dramatic at all. Looks to me that our Business students are very..uptight? and focused. Very serious in all ways.
    I’m not sure I could do a dramatic introduction into a CRISIS! scenario as great as you can by the way, too)) BUT! I relate to problem solving as an approach, totally. What’s practical is best, right?
    Thanks, Vicky, you actually inspired me to try something dramatically new for me! some day…=)


    1. Hi Ann!

      Thank you so much for providing us with the cultural background you are teaching in – and really hope to see how it goes if you use it : )

      With students that are more low-key I just present the problem that they have to work on or let them discover it on their own. (I drop the drama there, ha ha!)

      Thanks so much,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s