Just as your participants will sometimes have difficulty understanding you, you will also encounter times where you have trouble understanding what they are trying to communicate to you.
Remember to stay calm, unflustered, and patient. Encourage the participant to continue trying – nod, smile, show that you are interested in what they have to say. Listen carefully and do not interrupt the participant’s train of thought as the participant may have trouble remembering what they were going to say.
Listen carefully to what the participant is saying and try to find a word or phrase that you can build upon; Verify what they have communicated by paraphrasing or repeating what you have heard. If you have not fully understood the person, you can try asking them to repeat what they have said, or ask clarifying questions. Try to go back to what you last understood, verify that info, and then build forward. Pay attention to their body language, facial expression, and intonation for clues. If the person can speak but cannot think of a certain word, ask them to describe it, with prompts like asking what it is used for, or what it looks like. Use some of the strategies we have just described to support expression.
If you are still having trouble, acknowledge that. Take responsibility for the communication breakdown, using statements like, “I’m sorry, I am not asking the right questions today! I care about what you have to say. Let’s try again later.” And as you are able, do go back later. Shift the focus away from the participant and use group action such as asking everyone who likes this picture to give you a thumbs up or put your hand up. Remember that even if you cannot understand the participant after using all your strategies, that the participant will appreciate your effort at trying to understand them.
In some cases, you will have participants who you simply cannot understand. We had a participant in an early program like this. His expressions were very earnest and enthusiastic, but we could never understand more than a few words. Gestures were helpful in many cases. And in others where he had a lot to say we made sure to pay close attention, offer encouragement by smiling, nodding to continue sharing and to value his contribution. For this participant in the moment, he was fully engaged, sharing his own ideas in his own way and was valued for it. He enjoyed the program and we enjoyed his presence, enthusiasm, and engagement.