#214: 13 Ways to Clarify When You Don’t Understand Someone | Advanced English Conversation

Aug 11, 2021 | Business Professional English, English Conversation

Recently I was in a conversation with one of my students about genomes and DNA. And I was utterly lost.

At that point, I had a choice. I could stay silent and lose an opportunity to learn.

Or I could take a risk and ask a clarifying question. 

In any conversation, there are a variety of reasons why we may not understand someone’s opinion. Likewise, there are many reasons we may feel lost.

When that happens, the best course of action is to ask clarifying questions to successfully keep the conversation moving forward.

And that’s what you’ll learn to do today with this lesson on 13 Ways to Clarify When You Don’t Understand Someone.

By the end, you will be able to confidently ask for clarification AND gain a clearer understanding of the speaker’s opinion so you’re fully engaged with the conversation.

To help, let’s look at 4 common scenarios when we might start to get lost in the conversation: 

  1. When someone’s opinion isn’t clear.
  2. When the speaker’s thoughts are not connected.
  3. When you need more details.
  4. When you’re unfamiliar with the topic or words used.

In each scenario, you’ll learn effective strategies with example questions to help you steer the conversation successfully.

13 Clarifying Questions in English

Scenario #1: When Someone’s Opinion Isn’t Clear

Sometimes, a person may respond to a question and discuss several details without clearly stating their opinion. So in the end, you still don’t know their opinion.

If you don’t understand where they stand, highlight what you heard and confirm with the speaker

Here are some questions that can help you do that. 

  • If I understood you correctly, you’re saying that [paraphrase opinion]. Am I correct?
  • You made an interesting point about… Do you believe that [paraphrase opinion]?
  • To summarize, you’re saying that [paraphrase opinion], correct? 
  • It sounds like you disagree/agree with [insert statement], is that right?

In each of the questions, I’m repeating the speaker’s possible opinion by paraphrasing their points.

This shows that I’m listening and giving them my full attention. At the same time, I’m giving them an opportunity to clarify their stance.

For example, imagine you’re having a conversation about a recent company update and a person isn’t clearly expressing their point of view:

  • You made an interesting point about the disadvantages of changing the company’s policy. Do you believe that the policy should remain the same as before?  

Scenario #2: When the Connection Isn’t Clear

It can be difficult to keep up with a discussion if there’s no clear connection between the speaker’s thoughts. 

At this point, the speaker should provide more detail and clarify. As the recipient of their thoughts, you CAN ask questions.

Let’s take a look at the following questions:

  • Could you explain how A and B relate to one another?
  • I didn’t quite catch the main point. How does A relate to B
  • I just want to clarify. Do you mind explaining why A and B connect? 

In each of the questions, instead of asking the speaker to repeat themselves, I ask the speaker to expand on how the two points connect. 

For example, suppose you’re in a book club and someone isn’t clearly explaining the connection between a character and a theme. You could ask:

  • I didn’t quite catch the main point. How does the theme of darkness relate to the character?”

Scenario #3: When You Need More Details

Sometimes, a speaker may give general or vague ideas of their opinion. The details may be half-baked or lack clarity.

The lack of information can definitely lead to confusion, even for native speakers. 

To clarify, try one of the following questions: 

  • I’d like to understand your thoughts further. Could you tell me more about…?
  • I like your ideas. Could you give me more details on…?
  • Those are some interesting points. Could you expand on the details? 

For example, imagine you’re speaking to a doctor who recommends a medication but glosses over details on the side effects. In this case, you could ask:

  • I’d like to understand your thoughts further. Could you tell me more about the possible side effects and how those would be managed? 

Scenario #4: When You’re Unfamiliar With a Topic or Word

Even when the speaker’s opinion is clear, you may find yourself stuck on a word or drifting into uncharted waters.

Remember that it’s better to clarify the meaning of a word or the topic of conversation than to be silent.

Feel free to politely interrupt, at an appropriate time, for clarification. It shows your initiative and strong ability to communicate.

Let’s take a look at the following phrases:

  • My apologies; I haven’t encountered the word “__” before. What do you mean by [repeat phrase]?
  • Just to clarify, what does [word] mean? 
  • Sorry, I’m not too familiar with [topic]. Could you tell me more about it?

We’ve all been in a situation where the topic of conversation is completely lost on us.

For example, you might be new to the neighborhood and your neighbor may suddenly start talking about the annual summer festival. As a new neighbor, you’re certainly welcome to say:

  • Sorry, I’m not too familiar with the summer festival in this neighbourhood. Could you tell me more about it?”

Time to practice!

Based on what you learned in the Confident English lessons, how might you respond in these two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: What clarifying question would be appropriate when someone’s opinion on a book or a podcast is unclear?
  • Scenario 2: What would you ask if your coworker gives you very little explanation on why some changes need to be made in a project?

The best place to practice and share is in the comment section below.

Have a fantastic Confident English Wednesday!

~ Annemarie


P.S. Are you looking for a community to provide support, help you stay motivated, and guarantee that you grow? Check out our Confident Women Community.

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