When Someone Has Difficulty Understanding Copy

There will be times when despite your best efforts to communicate clearly and thoughtfully, someone will have difficulty understanding you. They may look puzzled, struggle to answer, look to their partner for direction, or they may say something that is not related to your question.

Do not take it personally, or feel that you have done something wrong. Try not to feel flustered. This is a time to take a moment and a breath, to reset and try again. You can try several things, depending on the situation:

  • If the participant may have missed part of what you said, repeat it, using the same wording with a clear voice and slightly slower tone.
  • Or, try to say it in a different way, using different words. Break the idea into smaller parts and check for understanding as you go.
  • Be comfortable with allowing extra time and silence before your repeat or rephrase
  • Maximize gestures, intonation, facial expression
  • Use visuals – point, show, demonstrate
  • If still having trouble, go back to what they had understood last, and retry from that point
  • If appropriate, write down a few key words, and refer to the words as you are talking, point to the word as you say it

Share the responsibility for the communication breakdown, saying something like “I’m not explaining it clearly, I’m sorry.” While you may feel frustrated or that it is your fault, remember that the participant may feel that way too. If still having difficulty, say that you can retry later, and then as able, do go back and try again.

For hands-on activities, you can also offer support, for example asking if you can help to get their brushes ready, or if you can show them the steps on another paper. You can even suggest and model further assistive strategies for the participant and their friend or family member – encouraging them to point or try a technique called ‘hand over hand’ that will be described in a moment.