non-native speakers of English what to do if you have lost the thread of the conversation


This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese.


It’s easy to lose the thread of the conversation in a meeting, whether or not you are native speaker of the language being spoken. Something mentioned in the conversation may spark a train of thought that temporarily distracts you, and when your attention returns to the discussion you may realize that you have missed important information. Or, even if you have been listening attentively, sometimes it’s difficult to follow the twists and turns that many meeting discussions take. And of course, if the conversation is not in your native language, it’s natural to occasionally have difficulty following what is being said – especially if the native speakers are not being careful to control their speed and use of slang.

There are ways to deal with this feeling of being lost. In some cases, listening carefully for a few minutes makes it possible to pick up the thread. But in other cases, you may have become irretrievably confused. If you don’t do something soon, you risk having to sit through the rest of the meeting unable to contribute meaningfully.

Typically, when Japanese lose the thread of the conversation in a meeting being held in English, they are reluctant to speak up. They fear that it will make them look foolish, or reflect poorly on their English ability. They also tend to be afraid that interrupting the conversation to get their bearings will be an imposition on the group, slowing everyone down.

I would encourage Japanese to set aside those concerns when having meetings with non-Japanese. From the point of view of most non-Japanese, if we are having a meeting with you it is because we want you to absorb the information that is being discussed, and because we want your input. Neither of those can happen if you have ceased to understand what is being discussed. Thus, from the non-Japanese point of view, being in a meeting and not saying anything despite not understanding what is going on is quite inconsiderate to the other participants. In other words, it’s the not speaking up that most non-Japanese would view as the worst alternative.

Here are some phrases that you can use to pause the conversation and ask for help in regaining the thread of the conversation:

  • “Can you please go over that last point again?”
  • “I’m afraid you’ve lost me here. Can we back up a bit?”
  • “I seem to have lost the thread of the conversation. How does this relate to the last point?”
  • “I’m feeling confused. Can someone summarize for me how we got to this point?”
  • “I’m having trouble following this part of the discussion. Can someone fill me in?”
  • “I think I may be missing something here. Could you please repeat that last part?”
  • “Please run that by me one more time.”
  • “Can we stop for a moment to make sure everyone is clear on what was just said.”

If the source of your confusion is a specific word or phrase that is being used, asking for a definition of it is a good way to keep on track. Here are some phrases that can be used:

  • “What does “x” mean?”
  • “I’m not familiar with the term “x.””
  • “Could you please explain what “x” is?”

Although it may feel awkward to interrupt the flow of the conversation, it’s worth it to make sure that you can be an active participant in the meeting.

For non-Japanese, I recommend that you pay attention to Japanese participants’ body language. If they look like they are lost, they probably are. If that happens, it’s a good time to back up and go over things one more time, and to check whether you are speaking too quickly or otherwise being difficult to follow. Taking a break can also give Japanese the opportunity to ask a question without having to slow down the meeting.


For more on how to make your cross-cultural meetings effective, get a copy of our free bilingual ebook here.




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