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HealthInfo Canterbury

Tips for better communication

Many different conditions can cause communication difficulties, and no two people have exactly the same problems. Remember to treat each person as an individual and in a way you would like to be treated if you were having difficulties.

Talk to the person as an adult and an equal

Just because someone has difficulty communicating, it doesn't make them any less intelligent. For example, when you visit a country where you can't speak the language, it doesn't mean you have an intellectual disability.

Don't talk about a person as if they aren't there

It's rude to talk over someone, whether or not they have a communication difficulty. Always include the person in the conversation.

Attract the person's attention

Do this before you start talking, by gently touching the person, or saying their name. This gives them time to focus their attention, so they have the best chance of understanding you.

communicationMake sure they can see your face

Don't sit in front of a strong light, as that will put your face in shadow. Don't cover or partially cover your face with your hand, paper, or anything else. It will help if the person can see your facial expressions and lip-read if they need to.

Don't rush, and let them know you have time

Show the person you have the time to communicate – don't talk "on the hop". Sit down in a relaxed position and give all your attention to what they are saying.

Check that the person has all their communication aids

Make sure the person is willing and able to spend time with you

Are they tired? If so they'll find communicating even more difficult. What mood are they in? If they are depressed or unhappy, ask if they would like your company, or whether you should come back another time.

Avoid distractions

Turn off the TV or radio. Move away from the vacuum cleaner, ringing telephone or other people talking. Try to create a quiet, relaxed atmosphere.

Don't shout or exaggerate lip movements

It helps to speak slightly slower and use more facial expression. But over-pronouncing words and shouting don't help.

Talk in short, clear sentences

Don't put too much information in one sentence. Break long sentences into several smaller ones. Pause a lot so the person can process what they hear. Don't overload them with too much speech.

Repeat and rephrase

If the person doesn't understand, but you are confident your message is simple enough, clearly repeat what you have said. If they still don't understand, try using different words.

If you don't understand what the person has said, repeat back to them the part you did hear. They can clarify or correct the missing part without having to repeat the entire sentence.

Always indicate when you are changing the subject

The person might not be able to switch from one topic to another as quickly as you can. Always give them plenty of time. Indicate when one subject has finished and another is starting, for example: "That's all the family news. (Pause.) Now then, tell me about your therapy programme."

Watch how they react

Look carefully at the person's face. If they don't understand you it may show in their expression.

Listen well to what they are trying to say

Concentrate on understanding what they're saying. Don't correct their words or interrupt with anecdotes of your own – these interruptions will stop their flow of thought.

Give them time to respond

Always give the person enough time to find the right words and respond. Listen patiently and quietly. Don't fidget or shift your gaze out the window, for example. Show them you are listening attentively and let them know they have time to process their own thoughts.

Written by community speech-language therapists, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2020.


Page reference: 121458

Review key: HISCD-79694