Friday, November 7, 2014

Advice please? What to do when you can't understand someone with speech difficulties

Earlier today, I was getting brunch at my college dining hall when I ran into one of the staff members. I've written before about some of the awesome people who work there, but this girl is new, so I've only seen her a few times.

Still, she always makes an effort to catch my eye and wave, and we've conversed a few times. Sometimes she saves me a spot, and today she took my arm and guided me to my table. As I set down my plate, I asked her about her day. She said something about a friend, but I didn't quite understand because she has some difficulties speaking.

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that...what did you say?"

She tried again. I still didn't get it."Sorry...what was that? Something about a friend? Which friend?"

She smiled and pointed. "YOU. You are my friend!"

The feeling is mutual, and I told her so. :) I couldn't help but wonder there a "right" way to ask someone for clarification if you can't understand their speech? I imagine that it will happen again in the future so I wanted to ask my readers' opinions.

Sometimes I just smile and nod, but I'd much prefer to try to understand if I can. At the same time, I don't want to ask for clarification too many times, because nothing's more annoying than having to repeat yourself six million times until someone finally gets what you're trying to say!

What do you do when you don't understand someone, particularly if that person has speech difficulties? Is it okay to "guess," as I did? As a person with a disability, I know firsthand how frustrating it can be when someone is insensitive, and I'd like to be as respectful as possible. :)


  1. I think "Sorry, I didn't catch that" works fine.

  2. My husband is very hard of hearing, and I try to accommodate that. My ears are also wearing out, so I understand the frustration of not being able to hear! Anyway, few things make me angrier - as in, feeling lied to and devalued - than when he nods and pretends he has heard. Your friend must be very accustomed to having to repeat herself. I think repeating back the part you have heard and asking for clarification, as you did, is a great way to handle it. You could also explain to her what it is that makes her speech difficult for you to understand - does she need to speak more slowly? Enunciate more clearly? Pitch her voice differently?

    I understand that the problem here is with her speech, not your hearing, but it seems to me that the real issue is that the message is failing to get through. Hope these thoughts help!

  3. Hi K! Claire here. :)
    I think you handled it really well. Continue to be encouraging (smile, etc.) as she repeats herself. I'll never forget my interaction with a student whose speech was very impacted (I volunteer with adults with SN at my church.). Everyone just sort of nodded and patted him after he spoke, and I could see how frustrated he was getting. I walked over and asked what he was trying to say and repeated back to him what I had heard. His grin was unbelievably big as he exclaimed, "You can understand me!"! If your new friend is anything like this dear student, repeating herself isn't a burden--she's just thankful to have someone take the time to listen.

  4. I agree with Claire above. But I would add, that as long as you ask with respect and encouragement rather than appearing aggravated (which I know you would never do) your friend will be happy to repeat. I also think if you start with an apology and make it clear it is an issue on your end not hers you are showing her that you want to understand as much as she wants to talk.

    I kind of wonder as well if it would be rude to say I'm sorry but I don't understand would you be comfortable writing it down for me?

    Great questions to think about....

  5. I wonder the same thing with my own son sometimes, K and really, in the end, people want to be heard so I think respectfully asking for clarification and doing what you did was perfect. Saying "what about a friend?" was perfect! I know my little boy gets so frustrated when he's trying to say something and isn't understood because in the end, while it might be annoying to have to repeat himself, he still wants to make his point.

  6. You are such a beautiful person to be thinking about this and finding out more information to be supportive x
    Cooper absolutely hates it when people pretend to understand but always appreciates when people try to and are honest that they didn't understand. I often find myself assuring people that it's okay to tell coop they don't understand or didn't quite " catch that" Coop is very aware his speech is affected after a lightbulb moment of hearing his voice on video( prior to that he thought everyone else had the problem,) and it all clicked! In his head it's clear but in real life it's not!
    Coop uses lots of gestures and we also have to spell or sound words out too.
    Lovely to catch up on your news xx happy holidays bron

  7. I think you did just fine! Asking for clarification and trying to understand someone sends the message that they are worth listening to and you respect them.


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