We use repair strategies when there is a communication breakdown. We can also use repair strategies to prevent a communication breakdown. For example, a miscommunication, a word or phrase that was not clear, not being able to hear the speaker, not understanding the speaker, misunderstanding a situation, etc.
Communication breakdowns can happen in any language, to both native speakers of the language and non-native speakers alike.
In this context, we are discussing repair strategies in English communication.
We’ve all been in situations where there was a misunderstanding or miscommunication.
The repair helps fix the communication and mend the dialogue that was broken or jumbled so that the communication can work. This is also what allows us to understand one another.
Communication Repair Strategies as the Speaker
If you are the person who is not communicating clearly and you notice that the listener looks confused or lost, here is what you can say:
- Let me rephrase that.
- Let me say that again.
- Let me see if I can say that more clearly.
- Let me restate that.
- Let me put it a different way.
- In other words…
- What I meant (to say) was…
- What I mean by this is…
- Let me clarify that…
- Let me be more specific.
This shows that you want to be understood and that you don’t want to leave anyone behind in the dust.
This is fine to do because you want to read the other person and see if they are confused. If it looks like they didn't understand what you said, you can use one of the above strategies.
No need to apologize and make an excuse for your language or communication skills, instead just take it upon yourself to restate your message and say it in a clearer, slower way. If that doesn’t work, then try to be more specific.
Communication Repair Strategies as the Listener
If you are the person listening, meaning you are on the receiving end of the conversation, here are some phrases you can use to resolve or prevent a communication breakdown.
- I didn’t catch that.
- Could you repeat what you’ve just said?
- It was too loud, would you mind saying that again?
- It’s pretty noisy in here, couldn’t hear you.
- I missed that, could you go through that again?
- Could you run me through that again?
- Could you walk me through that one more time?
- I’m not sure I quite understand what you’re saying.
- Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying.*
- You lost me there, would you mind repeating that?
- Just so we’re on the same page…(rephrase what you understood).
It’s very useful to get a little more information on what they were saying, even if you do hear them clearly. This allows you to be extra sure about the message.
*For the strategy “Let me make sure I understand what you’re saying,” you could restate what they said and walk them through your understanding or interpretation of their message. This will have the speaker here what they said and either confirm or deny that meaning of the message. This makes sure everyone understands and is on the same page.
If the speaker uses any language you are unfamiliar with, such as technical jargon, medical vocabulary, abbreviations, acronyms, words, phrases, or idioms you are not sure about then ask them to define the terms. It’s the speaker’s job to define any unfamiliar words or vocabulary for the listener. As the listener, you can hold the speaker accountable for defining the terminology.
It’s very tempting to just nod and pretend you understand the vocabulary or are following the conversation. But that always causes problems down the line because the speaker thinks you understood their meaning, but then you do something that shows you actually didn’t understand them. That would be annoying and frustrating for them. In fact, it’s more courageous and a sign of confidence to make clear you didn't’ understand what they said. There should be no shame in admitting that you didn’t follow the conversation.
One other way to establish understanding is to ask for an example. Saying something like “Okay, you’re saying (this), could you give me an example that illustrates what you’re saying?” You want to ask them to help encapsulate the essence of what they’re saying by describing a real-world situation or use-case for whatever it is they are describing. You can ask for an anecdote or story to make an abstract statement more tangible and concrete.
These are ways to repair miscommunications and misunderstandings. They are also ways to prevent communication breakdowns from transpiring in the first place.
These strategies work across all communication channels, i.e., in-person communication, on virtual calls (Zoom, Skype, etc.), over the phone or via email.
The best way to do this is to do it calmly and politely. You want to avoid sounding angry, urgent or frustrating. This will ensure that you get the best outcome. Doing it with good humor shows that you’re focused on understanding rather than losing patience. We want to strive to be patient communicators. By demonstrating patience, it goes a long way toward establishing a sense of mutual respect.