#167: Professional English — What to Say When You Don’t Understand
This lesson was originally published in 2015.
In 2020, it was updated with new content and a video lesson.
Have you heard the idiomatic expression, “like a deer in headlights?” To feel like a deer in headlights means to be so frightened or surprised that you can’t think, move, or speak. It’s the perfect idiom to use when you don’t understand someone in English.
Have you ever felt like a deer in headlights when speaking English?
Maybe they used a new word. Maybe it was their accent or how fast the spoke. Maybe it’s a new situation and you’re feeling nervous.
But when someone asks you a question in English and you don’t understand, what do you do?
Many of us freeze. We don’t know what to say. The conversation stops. And we feel silly.
If that happens to you sometimes, let’s talk about how to fix it.
Today you’re going to learn the same expressions native speakers use when they don’t understand someone.
Plus, I’ll include pronunciation tips so you’ll also learn how to say them more naturally.
Today’s lesson is focused on professional expressions in English, but these are also perfect to use when you’re talking to someone you don’t know very well.
But I did include a little bonus section with slang and information expressions as well.
What to Say When You Don’t Understand Someone in English
When You Don’t Understand Someone
The questions below are always polite and professional to use in a conversation when you don’t understand someone or didn’t hear them clearly.
Be sure to watch the video lesson to get some useful pronunciation tips so you sound more natural when you use these questions.
- I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you said. Could you repeat it (more slowly)?
- I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that? Would you mind repeating it?
- I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you clearly. Could you say that again?
- I’m sorry, what was that?
- Could you say that again, please?
- Could you repeat that, please?
- I’m sorry?
When a Word or Expression is New
Use these the questions below when you don’t know the meaning of a specific word or expressions.
Be sure to watch the video lesson to get some useful pronunciation tips so you sound more natural when you use these questions.
- I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you meant by [insert word or expression]?
- That’s a new word/expression for me. Could you explain it?
- What does [insert word or expression] mean?*
*Careful with this question. I often hear a mistake with the word order and structure of this sentence. For example, I hear: “What does it mean, deer in headlights?”
To fix this, remove “it” and replace it with the word or expression that is new, for example: “What does ‘deer in headlights’ mean?”
English Slang and Idioms to Use When You Don’t Understand Someone
Of course, with friends, family members, and close colleagues, it’s 100% okay to be more informal. So let’s look at a few examples of what you can say when you don’t understand another person.
Be sure to watch the video lesson for pronunciation tips and to learn more about how we use the idioms below.
- What did you say? (Be sure to watch the video lesson for a pronunciation tip!)
- What was that?
- Excuse me? (Be sure to watch the video lesson for a pronunciation tip!)
- I can’t make heads or tails of what you’re saying.
- I think our wires are crossed.
- Everything you said is just a word salad.
- That was as clear as mud.
If you’d like to learn more about connected speech — which I highlight in this lesson — be sure to watch:
I’d love to hear from you and learn about your experiences! Please share your stories and advice in the comments section below:
- What is one question or idiom you learned in this lesson that you can use the next time you don’t understand someone? Try using it in your own example for practice.
- Do you have a favorite question or phrase that you already use? If so, share it here. It might be perfect for someone else in the Confident English Community.
Thanks so much for joining me.
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Absolutely enjoyed. what ur explained this video is the the real fact .xx
Dear Annemarie, My example sentence is like this.
I don’t have any phrases that I know before I learned today with you.You taught so many phrases today and I’m very much happy about that.
It very really helpful for me specially the pronunciation of Scuse me. Thank-you for sharing..
Thank you, it was interesting and helpful
Hi Annemarie, I am grateful that i finally found your lesson, it helped me a lot. thank you very much. Now i can speak clearly on the phone after this helpful lesson.
I have seen what to use in my IELTS speaking test when the interviewer goes too fast.
The three sentences are awesome and I have retained one in my memory now.
I want to make sure I understood you perfectly. Could you say that one more time?
You are a blessing. I’ve been looking for your podcasts. I need to enhance my listening skill before my exams. Please help me. I have a great issue with plurals.
I always leave out s at the end of the words.
I’m so glad to hear that, Funmilayo! That sounds like a perfect way to handle someone who speaks too fast.
You give a tip regarding ‘excuse me’ pronunciation. Whether all words, that have ‘ex…’ in the beginning (like example, expression), could be pronounced using this tip.
Thanks in advance 🙂
That’s a really good question, Natalia.
We cannot use the same rule with example or expression. With those words, we always say the ex- clearly. 😊
I am sorry to write now. I could not hear your lesson before. I really like to listen to you, it seems so easy to became confident in English….
I had a misunderstanding with a native teacher when I tried to explain my son had a problem at nights, when he was asleep. ‘That was as clear as mud’, because she looked at me with surprise (I could say anger). I felt really embarrassed and I did not say anything else.
Thanks for your tips and videos.
This Lesson helps me a lot because when I get nervous, usually I forget almost everything, so for sure I am going to use a couple of these expressions.
I’m so glad to know this was helpful to you. 🥰
Hey my only one teacher Annemarie .I love you so much , for what I have learned today is excuse me madam! I’m sorry, I don’t hear you clearly, can say that again.?
Have Blessed Night may the Angel’s protects you, God Love’s you!
I´ve liked this lesson, why ?. Because is hard for people not native speaker recognize that you understood someone in English. You can feel quite enbarrased if you don´t show clearly that you need another” opportunity” to cacth enerything he said. Some times this can become you to do something wrong whith strong consequences. In my opinion the best way to manage this situation is be calm and polite and invite to speaker repeating that more slowly as he can.
I’m so glad to know you liked this lesson! I totally agree that it can be hard and embarrassing when you don’t understand. I think you’ve got the perfect strategy by staying calm and polite.
Also, I didn’t mention it in the video but sometimes we don’t understand someone because THEY are a bad communicator. 😊
Oh, Annemarie, i have felt like “a deer in headlight” many times, normally in informl situations, with friends or family, and this is terrible, because they make fun of me. They are very mean to me! So, the next time it will happen, because it will happen, I will reply with my favorite idiom amog those you posted: “I think our wires are crossed” I’m sure i will make a good impression! 😉
So, thank you!
P.S. I love the shirt you wore in this video
Thank you so much for commenting and I’m thrilled that you’ve found a new idiom to use. You’re certainly not alone when you have moments that you don’t understand – I’ve had so many in my second language. The key is to remember: 1. It’s okay to still be learning new expressions. And 2. Other people can be bad communicators, so sometimes it’s their problem.
(Thanks for the comment on the shirt too. 😊)
I’m grateful that I’m connected with you. I gained confidence handling unreasonable customer with your lessons every Wednesday, It helps me a lot.
My favorite idoms in today’s lesson is ;
* What did you say ? Everything you said is just a word salad.
* I’m not quite sure if I understand your concern correctly, would you mind repeating that?
Hi Gladeline, I’m so happy to hear my lessons have been helpful to you. Thank you for sharing that. And I”m thrilled to know you’ve found some new, useful expressions in today’s lesson. 😊
I love your smile it’s a stress release for me .your tips are so valuable and helpful for me.now l am learning to listen myself and my mistake .thanks for your help.May you always have ease in your life.
Thank you for the kind comment. I’m thrilled to know this was helpful!
Annemarie your tips are so valuable. I’ll try to use those more to feel less a deer in headlights. Thanks and have a great time.
I’m so glad this was useful to you!
Hi there Annemarie! I am going to share a situação that happened with me. So I received a Phone call on Skype and we have started talking but that accent I have never heard that so I Felt like a deer in headlight. I have kept calma listening and when I didn’t understand I asked for him to repeat It. Them after my ears uses to with that accent we could speak about our job. My advice is listening and listening and find a friend in YouTube get tu our contacto there and you going to practice and improve tour… Read more »
Hi Edenilson, Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you have a good strategy for difficult situations in English and you’ve got some good advice.
Thank you Annamarie for your lesson! You’re right, as usual, staying calm is very important when you have an interview: but unfortunately it’s not easy especially when you’re a sensitive person like me 🙁 . I hope to became more confindent and improve my English 🙂 I’ll follow your advice ! A big hug
Thank you for the kind comments. I’m so glad this lesson was useful. It certainly is a challenge to stay calm and overcome fears. It takes time and patience. But I know you can do it. Don’t give up. 🙂
Thank you for this new lesson. How many things to learn! I have started using your teaching in my business and I feel to have improved my English.
Thank you for the comment. I’m so glad to know my lessons are useful to you and you’re improving your English.
Hi Anne, I just love reading your lessons even after months of your presentation.
I have greatly improved in my communication with colleagues, family ,friends and in meetings.
iam not a “a deer in the headlight ” any more.
have a great time.
What a wonderful compliment. Thank you. I’m thrilled to know that my lessons are useful to you and are helping you improve your communication in English. I wish you continued success!
Dear Annemarie, thank you for this lesson 🙂 it was very great and very useful for me. Be confident in English….it is very difficult for me. When I didint understand I feel nervous and I stop talking.I have a very big dream…to be confident in English 🙂 You are very nice teacher 🙂
Thank you so much for your comments! I’m very happy to know this lesson was useful for you. I hope that you’ll be able to use some of these questions to help stay calm and focused in conversations, even when you don’t understand.
And for your dream to be confident… I know you can be! Will you be joining us for the next 10-Day Fluency Challenge? It’s a great way to get started. 🙂 Best, Annemarie
I say that: this one is very easy why i don’t understand…oh my god…!
1. Ok. When i arrived to Canada and I’ve begun work I every day felt myself like deer in headlights because I was working in specific community with specific vocabulary. They heard from me English speech and have been starting speak English with me but I didn’t understand them. And when they’ve begun explain me I didn’t catch up it got worse. It happened because of using a lot of phrasal verbs, especially with “get”(some time I thought it is a word-parasite in English), and idiomatic expressions. But I didn’t surrender and I went on express my thinks sometime helped… Read more »
Thank you for your comments and for sharing your experience. You’re right that at the beginning when you live in a new country, it can be challenging because of the idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs. These take time to learn and understand. But, as you said, with practice, you will learn more and be able to express yourself more easily.
Keep working and stay motivated!! 🙂 Annemarie
Hi Annemarie. I’ve reread my story and want to ask you how is more correctly: use at first Past Simple and then Past Perfect or opposite?
Thank you very much for the lesson. I faced the situation many times, mostly over the phone calls(which I find difficult for me to understand them first), and also face to face, but none of them caused much harm for me. I end up the most conversations with no clarity, which bothers me the most.
I, Evrytime use the expression “sorry?” to get the information repeated. But now I had your lesson, and i’ll never make a mistake while being professional.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I think speaking on the telephone is particularly challenging because you can see facial expressions or body movements. But using, “sorry?” is a great way to ask someone to repeat. And now, with the lesson, you have several more questions or expressions you can use. 🙂
I wish you continued success in your English!! ~ Annemarie
Hello Annemarie, thank you for the useful video. Really, the problem is the lack of vocabularies to use, and this is the most of the reasons that causes lots of persons to keep quiet. This happened to me some years ago, but right now, situation is changing day after day. Now, what I know is that we have Brutish English, American English and African English. The pronnounciation is not the same in different languages. This confusion is pushing me to writing than to speaking. With this video, new things will happen.
Thank you for sharing. I’m glad to know that English is changing for you day by day. It’s true that different pronunciation styles can be challenging and sometimes writing is easier for communication. This happens often in business. The good news is, if you continue to practice speaking skills and listening skills, conversations will get easier. Best, Annemarie
Hi Ann Mari Thank you for this lesson Actually when I were watching this video l remember many situations when I seem like a deer in headlights, and I felt nervous and sad to stopped talking when I didn’t understand. That’s happened many times with my daughter’s teachers When I met them in the mothers and teachers meeting The English teacher speaks English very well it’s her mean language that’s make me feel shy when I talk to her and make conversation so short I didn’t feel free to express my opinion and my points even if I just want… Read more »
Thank you for sharing. I’m hopeful that you’ll be able to use some of the questions to help clarify in conversations or to give yourself a moment to think about what you want to say. It can be so discouraging and frustrating when you feel that you can’t express yourself or your opinion. I do hope you’ll be joining me for the 10-Day Fluency Challenge. It’s the perfect opportunity to overcome some of those challenges!! 🙂 Annemarie
Thank you for useful advice. According to my experience, I should say that it was difficult to speak confident without any doubts. But, without practice it’s not possible to achieve fluency. So first of all need to overcome all fears and talk when there is possibility.
Thank you for your comment. You’re absolutely right that without practice, it’s not possible to become fluent. It’s essential to practice and do it regularly. Hopefully the questions in today’s lessons can help to smooth conversations that may be particularly challenging or help to continue to the conversation, even if there is something difficult to understand. Best, Annemarie
Your advice gets straight to the point and seems to be useful in face to face conversation. I am at the edge of recalling seemingly more complex situation. Imagine that someone is delivering a presentation in front of specialists. Theoretically, that person should be well-acquainted with the topic and be able to answer inquires. Practically, it is quite probable that the questioner may use expression /word the presenter is totally unfamiliar with, although it is strongly linked with the presented topic. How to conduct in this particular example? I assume that, asking questions bluntly, about the meaning of this expression,… Read more »
An interesting situation you’ve presented. I think that any time you are presenting on a topic, even if you’re an expert, there might be an occasion when someone asks a question you don’t understand. This might be a result of an awkwardly worded question, an inappropriate word, a speaking style or accent, and so much more. The clarifying questions from today’s lesson would still be appropriate, polite, and professional when someone needs to clarify a question from an audience member.
Excellent question! Thanks for asking. ~ Annemarie
Hi Annemarie, Thank you very much for the lesson that is inspiring as always. I have felt today like a deer in headlights on our Skype meeting when my colleagues asked me about some clarifications. I was talking about everything what I know on this topic. But after today’s lesson, I made certain conclusions for myself how to act in such a situation. First of all to keep calm. Then focus on the question and when you have some doubts in regards to the question. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions using these useful tips provided by you in… Read more »
What great conclusions you’ve drawn for yourself. I think you’re absolutely right – staying calm is very important. It helps you to think clearly and communicate more effectively. I’m thrilled to know the tips in this lesson were useful to you. Thank you for sharing.
And I hope that all of your future Skype calls will be less stressful. 🙂 Annemarie