Updated: Jul 30, 2021
This week I want to talk about what to do when you are an advanced speaker but you are involved in a conversation that you do not fully understand.
Maybe it's over the phone.
Maybe it's in person.
Maybe it's an important conversation.
You're lost. And, in my experience, the words start floating by in a jumbled mess. If you're like me, my mind can’t seem to catch onto anything.
And, this can happen even if you are a competent English speaker.
Usually the conversation is about a topic that you know little about and you are unfamiliar with the vocabulary.
Or, maybe you were caught off guard, and someone introduced a new topic without any transition or warning. Whatever the cause, when you can’t understand a conversation and contribute, it can feel stressful.
Why does your brain and body feel so stressed?
When you don’t understand the topic or the subtleties of the conversation, it can trigger something called your limbic system. Your limbic system is an intricate system of nerves in the brain that is responsible for your emotions and drives.
Dr. William P. Salt explains it like this:
“When homeostasis is threatened by a stressor/trigger, the limbic system (emotional motor system) is activated. The limbic system contains computer-like programs for your defense.”
In other words, your body’s system prepares to fight and defend itself against a threat. Now, listening to a difficult conversation might not seem threatening, but your brain doesn’t know the difference. Once your limbic system is activated, it causes a series of biochemical changes in your body.
With the chemicals flooding your brain, you literally can’t think clearly. Maybe you have experienced this at other times in your life. Maybe you felt it when you had to give a presentation but got so nervous that you forgot your speech.
What can you do when you find yourself in this situation?
I know this sounds impossible, but this is your first step. You can immediately calm your body and your limbic system by breathing slower.
Repeat, “Breathing In. Breathing out.”
No one around you needs to know that you are doing this. It’s an “inside game.” But the first step in regaining your ability to think clearly is to calm the limbic system. Because if you stay stressed out, the situation has little room for improvement.
2. Accept that you are having difficulty.
Don’t fight it. The conversation is challenging. Maybe everyone is talking too fast or using idioms or expressions that you don’t understand. That’s okay. It happens to native speakers, too.
I don't know if you have felt this, but I have experienced shame and embarrassment when I didn't understand something. It takes me back to Calculus class in high school when I would start sweating in the middle of tests because I didn't understand a problem!
We could analyze why we feel shame, but it wouldn't help in the moment. But accepting that you are having a hard time will.
This is because it leads you to the next step.
3. Focus on what words you do understand.
Now that your mind is thinking more clearly, focus on the words that you do understand. Make it a game.
Can you predict or guess what the conversation is about? Think of the context of the situation. What might they be talking about? What can you piece together?
Focus on what you know and understand. There is sure to be some word or words that you can grab onto.
4. Ask questions.
What are some questions that you can ask to gain clarity?
Can you explain that again?
I didn’t follow that.
Could you repeat that?
Asking simple questions can help build confidence and comprehension. Plus, you might not be the only person confused. By asking questions, you are paving the way for a better conversation and better connections with others.
After all, that's what it is all about!
5. See this as an opportunity.
When you don’t understand a conversation, this is a great chance for you to research the topic more after the fact in a more relaxed setting. In a relaxed, “brain-friendly” setting, your mind will be able to learn and retain the information better.
What vocabulary would be helpful to know? Are there any short YouTube videos that you could watch to learn more about the topic?
Especially if the topic is something that truly interests you, you owe it to yourself to explore if further. Trust me, you’ll be glad that you did because the topic will probably come up again.
Most importantly, know that you are stretching your comfort zone every time you are involved in a challenging conversation. This is how your English skills will grow and how you will become an expert speaker, if that is your goal.
When was the last time you got lost in a conversation. What strategies did you use? I'd love to hear your tips and tricks. They might be helpful to other ESL learners.