What to Do When You Can’t Understand A Difficult Speaker in English

Listening and Understanding in English

Listening comprehension skills are essential to business communication. This is made more difficult when one is hearing a language which is not your native language. Many of my clients complain that have to talk to business associates on the telephone or teleconferences, attend meetings or video conferences, and conduct conversations while struggling to understand what is being said. In short, they hear, but can’t understand.

Listed below are some of the reasons they are having difficulty and my suggestions on how to deal with these problems.


Native speakers often do not realize that they speak rapidly. They continue to speak at their normal rate even though the person they are talking to is not a native speaker. It is quite all right to ask them to slow down if you don’t comprehend.

You can say:

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you slow down a bit?” or

“Please, could repeat that more slowly?”


The speaker is hard to understand because of a heavy accent. People from all over the world speak English now, but many have their own special accent.

You could say something like,

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what your are saying. Could you explain what you mean again?”


Some speakers use words that are local slang, but may not be known to those in another part of the world. Or they may run their words to together or chop off half the word.

You could say,

“I’m sorry. I don’t quite see what you mean. Could you explain this again?”


Some speakers are poorly organized or very careless with their words. This, unfortunately, applies in any language, but is worse when you are listening in a foreign language.

You could say,

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Could you explain what you mean?”


1. Ask them to slow down.

2. Prepare well beforehand.

3. Try to predict what people are going to say.

4. Take notes.

5. Repeat back to the person the information you just heard.

6. Practice

7. Stay calm.

Published by pitman

I am a Business English Coach who works with managers and other professionals helping them to perform at their best when it is most important: such as a presentation, meeting with an important client, or a job interview. I am also a resource person for teachers of Business English.

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