#289: 9 Common English Idioms to Use at Work | Brainstorming in English

Oct 4, 2023 | Advanced Vocabulary, Idioms & Figurative Language

Has a colleague asked to pick your brain?

Or has your English-speaking son-in-law suggested that you just play things by ear?

As they do in every language, idioms add charm and color to our speech. Like adding salt and spices to food, idioms make our conversations more interesting. 

Even better? Idioms help us express complex thoughts, emotions, and ideas with just a few quick words.

In this lesson, you’ll learn 9 common English idioms for work, particularly when brainstorming in English. 

To be clear, brainstorming isn’t limited to strategic planning at work. We brainstorm when

  • planning summer vacations;
  • discussing home renovations;
  • helping children with school projects;
  • and, even when organizing community events.

9 Essential English Idioms to Use at Work and in Brainstorming

To better organize the 9 common idioms in this lesson, I’ve focused on 3 main categories: 

  • Category #1: Idioms for Generating Ideas
  • Category #2: Idioms for Revisiting Ideas – in other words, wait until a later time to fully discuss an idea
  • Category #3: Idioms for Guiding Ideas – this means to help shape the development of an idea

Category #1: Idioms for Generating Ideas

Whether you’re planning out next year’s marketing calendar or discussing fundraising ideas, here are 3 commonly used idioms to encourage idea generation.

To tap into something

  • Def: To establish a connection with or to use something in a way that brings good results/benefits

  • Ex. If you’re at a business meeting and someone proposes an idea for a new service that you’re unsure about.

    You could say,  “I think we should tap into our client base to make sure there’s a need for this kind of service.”

To put our heads together

  • Def: to collectively come together and share ideas in an effort to solve a problem

  • Ex. Perhaps, you’re planning a vacation and your family is having a hard time deciding on an activity.

    You might say,  “If we put our heads together, I know we’ll find an activity that everyone wants to do.

To pick [one’s] brain

  • Def: to ask someone who knows a lot about a subject for information, their advice, or their personal opinion

  • Ex. Maybe you and your partner are planning on renovating your home.

    It’s your first time, so you ask your experienced friend, “Hey, can I pick your brain for a second? How do I know which contractor to hire?

Category #2: Idioms for Revisiting Ideas 

Sometimes a great idea is introduced but it’s just not the right time for discussion. For example, if you have a strict meeting agenda and limited time, you may need to discuss an idea further at a later time. 

Or maybe you need more information before you can continue the conversation. 

Here are 3 idioms to help in these situations.

To put something on the back burner

  • Def: to temporarily not deal with or consider something, especially something irrelevant or not urgent

  • Ex. At a school board meeting, you might say, “Let’s put repainting the school on the back burner for now and, instead, focus on how to further develop our art curriculum.

To circle back to [sth]

  • Def: to revisit or return to an issue, topic, or person at a later time

  • Ex. Perhaps, you’re in the middle of a thought and want to finish expressing it before you forget.

    When someone interrupts you, you might ask, “Do you mind if I circle back to you in a moment? I just want to finish my thought.

To play it by ear

  • Def: to decide how to deal with a situation as it develops, rather than acting according to plans made earlier; to go with the flow

  • Ex. Imagine you’re planning a small event with your family and the amount of food that needs to be ordered is uncertain.

    You might suggest, “Let’s play it by ear and order based on the number of people that RSVP by Friday.

Category #3: Idioms for Guiding Ideas

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes an idea needs a little bit of help.

Imagine, for example, that you’re working on a project with a team, and you’ve been assigned to brainstorm solutions to a specific issue. You come up with an initial idea, but it’s not quite complete, and you sense that it needs some refining. 

This is where ‘guiding’ comes in!

Try out these idioms when you need to guide an idea:

To jump the gun

  • Def: to do something too soon, especially without thinking carefully about it

  • Ex. Perhaps, your coworkers begin brainstorming marketing ideas for an upcoming conference.

    However, since you haven’t finalized some important details, you might guide them back to this priority by saying, “At this stage, I don’t want to jump the gun on this. Let’s make sure we know all the steps needed for implementation before we begin.

To hammer out

  • Def: to reach a clear picture or solution after a lot of discussion and exchange of ideas
  • Ex. At some point, your conversation with your child about their performance at school goes off track.

    To return to the main topic, you might suggest, “Ok, let’s hammer out how you want us to support you when you’re feeling overwhelmed at school. Then, we’ll come back to this.

Two heads are better than one

  • Def: shorthand way of expressing the idea that working together with others is often more effective than working alone

Ex. Perhaps you have a coworker who is reluctant to share an idea because it isn’t fully formed — she hasn’t had the time to think through all the details.

To encourage her to share anyway and provide an opportunity to shape the idea together you can say, “It’s okay if you don’t have all the details worked out. Go ahead and share your idea. Remember: two heads are better than one.

Time to Practice

To easily use the idioms you’ve learned today, it’s essential to practice.

To help you do that, I have 2 practice questions for you:

  1. Do you know someone who knows a lot about a subject or skill you’re interested in? Are there questions you’d like to ask to learn more? Think about how you might introduce a question and try using the idiom to pick one’s brain.
  2. Are you working on hammering out the details of something right now? A project or some upcoming plans? Share an example using that idiom to hammer out the details.

As always, you can share your comments and questions with me below.

~ Annemarie

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