I work in a big company, I have a colleague from another sector, who (I think) has some kind of problem in speaking. I really can't understand what he says and every time he talks to me, I just keep smiling.

Normally, our exchanges are social but sometimes it's work-related. Fortunately, I don't produce software for him at the moment.

Occasionally it's embarrassing for me, so how should I handle this situation? He's the superior in his sector.

How does someone interact with a colleague if they can understand only 5% of the things he says?

  • 1
    Is it because of accent or some speaking disorder?
    – Fildor
    Oct 6, 2017 at 10:41
  • 1
    I suppose it's a speaking disorder, for sure it isn't the accent Oct 6, 2017 at 10:41
  • Sometimes i try to ask him to repeat, but usually I don't understand even if he does ... Oct 6, 2017 at 10:51
  • Is it work-related discussion, as in you need to get information from him to do your job, or is it purely social?
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 6, 2017 at 10:56
  • 1
    Purely social only sometimes it's something work-related but fortunally I don't produce software for him atm Oct 6, 2017 at 10:57

6 Answers 6


People with a speech impediment are usually aware that they are hard to understand so they are usually very patient when asked to repeat themselves.

Since you don't have to rely on this person to do your job, I would advise patience from your side as well. The more you interact with them, the easier it will become to understand them. Don't be afraid to ask them to repeat themselves but make sure you're not being rude.

I once had a patient that spoke very softly and had an issue pronouncing certain words (slurred speech). Imagine how hard it is for a psychiatrist to not be able to understand their patient. He was happy to repeat and even say something a bit louder. After a couple of sessions, I was able to understand him fine.


I had a friend during college whose speech was difficult to understand. Here's what I used to do:

  1. Asked him to repeat whatever he just said if I didn't understand

Could you please say that again?

  1. Repeat what I just understood with a undertone of a question

Friend: So I went to the fair

Me: Oh! So you went to the fair?

Friend: Yes

If I was wrong, he would be prompted to repeat, so I would get another chance to understand him

  1. The final thing to do is keep the conversation going on. As time will pass, you will understand your colleague better (as you mention others who have been with this colleague for longer now understand him)

PS: Take care not to make them repeat them too many times as it may disrupt their flow, or make them angry. Use your questions calculatively.


If he has a speech impediment, or a medical history that is causing a slur in his speech then that is very unfortunate. The humanitarian response is to treat them the same as you would treat anybody else, naturally. That includes being honest with them - so if you want the exchanges to continue and improve you are going to have to say something along the lines of "You know, I enjoy our conversations but sometimes I can't make out all of your words". You may then get an explanation for this speech problem.

On the other hand, treating them the same as you would anybody else means that you may for some other reason not want as much attention from him as you get. It is possible that by being polite out of social awkwardness you are inviting the attention you get from him. If this is the case you still need to address it the same way - only when you understand him can you steer the conversation, and the friendship / working relationship in the direction you want it to go.


This is from my experience talking with people who don't speak fluent English, so maybe it will help or maybe not.

I know you said you can only understand 5% but I don't know if that means you can understand a single word or anything. But if you can pick out a noun/verb, the best way I've found is to ask Yes / No Questions. If you understood 5% of what he's saying, you could try:

(mumble) weather (mumble)

"Oh, I think it's suppose to rain today, did you bring an umbrella?"


"It's a beautiful day today, sad to be stuck indoors today, right?"

Or if you can't understand from the tone of the sentence or any words at all, or read any context clues, you can try

"Sorry, I only heard the word "weather," were you asking what the forecast was like today?"

wait for him to nod or shake his head. Or even just hand them a pencil and paper. Or whiteboard + marker.

Maybe try to pay attention to to the context, like if you're both in the break room about to make coffee, maybe he's warning you there aren't any more cups or telling you where the creme/sugar is, or offering to brew some decaf? But definitely try to use context clues if it's possible and ask based off that? But this is only if you feel like talking to him.


When I've been in similar situations, I've been honest about (my) not understanding, rather than pretending to have a two-way conversation. I'll ask the person to repeat what they've just said, or to speak slower, or even to spell a word I'm having difficulty with (which will often help make sense of the rest of the words, giving context to what's been said).

I think people appreciate other's honesty and genuine desire to understand, rather than nodding and politely pretending to "get it". While easier in the moment, this probably doesn't leave the person feeling truly understood. Once you've figured out what works, things get easier over time.


In my work we use Skype as a text messaging tool, and frequently even for people right near us if we want to ask a medium urgent question (they can respond in a few minutes when they've finished their train of thought and I don't have to interrupt what they're doing). If your work uses such a tool, could you reach out to him with a work-related question and see if any conversations eventuate, then when he talks to you face to face, it will likely be about the same topics and you will have some context to be able to work out what he is saying. For example, say he tells you on Skype that he is going to his sister's wedding on the weekend, then on Monday he says (mumble) sister (mumble) you can say, "oh, how was the wedding?"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.