(For a bit of a backstory, this question is related to this one here)

I have a friend called Bob. He's part of a group of friends I meet with regularly. Bob has a very direct, yet cryptic communication style. I find this is rare because usually people who are poor at communicating are not direct. He uses a lot of idioms, expressions and sort of has a spiritual sense about him (which surprises me because he also has some very conservative opinions and has told me he is not religious).

For example, he asked to have a meeting with me. One of the first things he said is that he's frustrated with me because he doesn't know what I'm trying to give the world. I can only guess he was referring to what I'm doing with my career, but I rather not have to guess when it's a main part of a meeting that lasted several hours long. He often uses expressions like "I'm holding your feet to the fire" which I'm not fully clear what he means. He speaks in a poetic way, which I don't really like in the sense in poetry it's nice to infer a hidden meaning but when I'm talking to someone I prefer to make certain I know what they're saying.

This is stressing me out. He's an intelligent person I have a lot of respect for. How can I address the issue so I can sincerely understand him better? Another thing that messes me up is he goes on sort of monologue and I find I don't get the chance to ask questions to clarify what he means, unless I interrupt.

I have had trouble addressing this issue because 1) he speaks so long I don't have a chance to ask for clarification 2) it's almost as if since I half understand it I don't realize I should have asked for clarification until much later 3) it's my experience that people just repeat themselves in the same unclear way when asked to explain

  • 4
    Why do you not ask Bob if you don't understand something?
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 9:46
  • If he's "holding your feet to the fire" about what you have to "give the world", maybe it's the content of his words that's making you uncomfortable rather than the word choice. Or maybe he chooses (knowingly or not) the expressions and monologue length based on the level of conflict in what he has to say.
    – Euchris
    Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 14:46
  • I don't see anything in this question or in the linked one that seem out of the ordinary for Bob. Were you right about your apprehension to the dinner he wanted? Do you have any other examples of idioms he's using? Holding your feet to the fire is quite common. Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 16:05
  • @Raditz_35 1) often times he speaks so long I don't get a chance 2) I think because I can sort of guess at the meaning it flies beneath my radar as "half understood" Commented Jan 1, 2020 at 11:52

2 Answers 2


I was admittedly more often Bob-like than on your side of the problem but this is what helped me, also when facing the problem myself:

Address a single occurrence on the spot

Prepare yourself, stay alert in wait for the next idiom and then casually say something along those lines:

  • I had to go but my boss was really holding my feet to the fire so I...
  • Uh, what?
  • Hm?
  • What did you just say?
  • That... my boss was holding our feet to the fire so we could hand in the final version...
  • Oh, that's a new one for me! What does it mean?
  • Hold our feet to the fire? Oh, just that he was putting some pressure on the team to make sure we stick to the schedule.
  • Oh, I see.
  • So we finalized it and......

Do that a few times and he might realise on his own that you are not as idiom-proficient as he is.

Address a single occurrence next time

Next time you see him, ask him what he meant:

  • Hi, how are you?
  • Pretty good, what about you?
  • Fine, thanks. On my way here, I was thinking about our last discussion and I realised I am not quite sure to understand what you meant when you said you did not mean to be "holding my feet to the fire"?
  • Oh, sorry about that, I simply meant I did not want to put any pressure on you. I wanted to know your opinion on this topic but you should also feel free not to answer my question, you know?
  • Ah, I see. That makes sense. So, should we......

After that, apply the first method I mentioned if he uses other idioms you do not know. After a few occurrences, he might notice he should adapt his speaking style...

Address the problem as a whole

...but he might just as well not notice! Communication is a skill that is difficult to master so you should not shy away from addressing it concretely. If he does not seem to get your hints and you don't help him any further, he might well never notice the problem!

A good trick to make sure the message comes across in the desired way is to use positive formulations and keep negative ones to describes your own share in this problem. For example, prefer:

I really like all these unusual idioms you use, I am just not quite sure to interpret them properly so I'll ask you from time to time to explain them to me. Is that fine with you?

to saying:

Please don't use so many unusual idioms, that makes it hard for me to follow you.

You could also ask him (in a positive manner) to drop them completely but I am convinced that the added value of having these idioms explained to you is greater, for both of you.

  • 1
    It might help me understand the situation if I know why some people prefer to speak that way. If "holding your feet to the fire" means the same thing as "putting pressure on" why not say the later? It's better in every way, shorter to say, more clear etc. Commented Jan 1, 2020 at 11:51
  • 2
    @hectorpepper Because (1) some people consider some idioms to just be known by everyone, (2) people like to sound poetic, (3) idioms are everywhere and it's very hard to never use them. Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 17:07
  • @pipinstallMonica thanks for the reply. I'm curious what you mean by "idioms are everywhere and it's very hard to never use them". Don't you think it's a bit extreme to say they're everywhere, for example there aren't many on this page we're on right now? I'm not looking to have him never use them, but cutting back would be one way he could make his communication clearer. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 11:18
  • @hectorpepper The point I was making is that to many people, idioms are a part of the language and asking them to cut back on them would be like asking them to limit their vocabulary. Can you imagine asking someone to use fewer words with 4 syllables? Especially with your friends, take it as a learning opportunity, because you will encounter people (in the workplace for example) who are going to have different speaking styles than you prefer and it's important to be able to understand them. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 13:52
  • @pipinstallMonica I see. Do you have any idea how to over come the long winded nature of his speech? I sometimes don't get the chance to ask clarifying questions because he moves on to another topic. I can't think of any option aside to cut him off to ask? Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:20

As mentioned in comments, there is nothing wrong in asking for explanation about what he means and you can also can tell him to stop talking to you that way.

Approach him and say it as you want, but, say it.

Maybe it's not related, but, you can also ask him why he talks to you like that (perhaps he learned from a book, a video, or it's the way he was educated/raised).

Even if he continues talking to you in that way, be firm and say:

  • Explain, Bob, I don't understand.

  • Bob, remember that I already told you to tell me directly.

And so on.

If he's your friend, he will understand. My personal experience tells me that you have to be direct - even if the other part (in this case, you friend) might feel akward. Set your boundaries clear.


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