I have long been pondering on the topic for this article which hopefully will initiate a whole series of articles dedicated to all sorts of mechanisms governing English language as well as methods and approaches one can apply to learn English successfully. I have finally decided that the article should combine both theoretical and practical aspects of the language usage, and with references to the field of sales when they’re relevant. I believe everyone, regardless of their level of command of English, will find it interesting in whole or in part and will be able to put the knowledge gained into practice.

In other words - how to handle a communication breakdown

This article will not cover typical sales talks and techniques since that is the domain of many other great experts who regularly contribute to this periodical. Although such contents may appear, as sales is inseparably connected with language and communication in general, I will rather focus on conscious application of grammar rules, specific vocabulary, useful phrases and expressions and some communication tactics as well. With all that said, let me start with introducing an important and efficient method of improving communication in every situation you may encounter in your business and private life.

Missing words

Have you ever been in that awkward situation when, trying to express yourself or simply get a message across, you were not able to carry on and got stuck, because a crucial word or phrase eluded you? You probably started to feel the internal pressure which had come from yet another feeling—that your interlocutor was growing impatient with your sudden pause followed by jittery mimicre, gestures and even more embarrassing fillers like ‘aam…’, ‘mmm…’ or other sounds designed to prolong the inconvenient break. I bet each and every one of you has. And from my experience, that is the moment when most people lose their confidence and get taken by a swirl of stress. Is there any way we could subdue it? Is there a simple technique we can apply to overcome those difficult and stressful situations? The answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

The first question addresses the problem of a mental attitude, strongly intertwined with personality traits and the overall character of a person. It refers to what I mentioned in a paragraph above—feeling the internal pressure and making assumptions which do not have any confirmation in reality. If you never feel such stress, you may as well skip this paragraph. But if you are a person who tends to get stressed in such situations consider this: when an unexpected break occurs during a conversation because we can’t find the right word, we envision that the person we are talking to cannot wait for us to finish. This gets worse when we wrongly interpret our interlocutor’s body language—any movement of their body will be a sign of impatience towards us. And this is exactly where our problem starts—in our mind and in our erroneous judgement. Never assume what your interlocutor thinks or feels as long as they do not verbalize it. The fact that you lost your tongue does not mean that they immediately get impatient. So for starters, get rid of this harmful feeling which stops you from finishing what you started in the first place. Of course it is easier said than done, but it will come to you in time if you just focus and notice the fact that you create hampering thoughts in your mind.

Once you get over it, there is the next step to be taken. And this is the answer to the second question asked above. However, there is a simple technique of managing one’s utterances, it is not easy. It requires much study and practice as it is directly connected with language mechanisms. So, what is it? It is simply saying something IN OTHER WORDS. This is what I personally call FINDING A DETOUR to achieve your destination. You might say: ‘And this is it? This is your trick? There’s nothing revealing nor effective to it.’ And yet I dare to say—there is! Stay with me and you will soon see how our learned communication patterns can be a hindrance to finding detours effectively. And know this—it’s not a magic trick and it’s not solely a specialty of acknowledged orators. Everyone can improve their communication skills by practicing PARAPHRASING and learning SYNONYMS, because this is our topic in hand. And in order to do that you will need a small but proven set of exercises to be done when studying English which are designed exactly to enhance those skills.

Let’s focus on the approach first, though. I would like you all to realize the fact that the problem being discussed here lies in our own, personal approach to how we communicate. It is natural for all of us to use ready-to-go language patterns which speed up or facilitate communication in our native language. Those patterns are not equally acquired in English and therefore we will not be equally effective, which is why we must drop them and forget about them. Nevertheless, we have to understand what basic meaning they carry, so that we can transform them into sentences available for us in English. To show you what I mean by that I will give an example using Polish language with no loss to readers who are native speakers of languages other than Polish, as sentences will be translated. Let’s consider the following sentence: “Wpadniesz do mnie później?” (‘Will you drop by later to my place?’).Here, we are using a colloquial and informal verb which is literally represented by a phrasal verb ‘to drop by’. Imagine that this sentence is supposed to finish your utterance and create an incentive for your interlocutor. You all of the sudden got stuck since you can’t recall how to translate “wpadniesz” into English. In this case it does not really matter if you sound too formal or not, childish or eloquent—what matters is your message, which is basically this: “Wpadniesz do mnie później?” = “Odwiedzisz mnie później?” (‘Will you visit me later?’). Focusing on what we want to say, on the basic meaning of the word „Wpadniesz”, we can easily say it in other words or FIND A DETOUR. And it is not a strategy reserved only for master communicators, public speakers and so on. It is a universal language mechanism which can be perfected by anyone, although it takes time and effort.

Take a different road

FINDING A DETOUR in any language which is not our native one is actually finding a quicker, more direct way to reach our destination, quite the opposite from the real life. In the real life detours are lengthy and sometimes complicated—in language it is more like building a tunnel through a huge mountain or a bridge over a vast precipice. That’s why we must also practice the art of simplifying what we want to say in a foreign language—there’s nothing really wrong with it if we get the message across. We naturally use sophisticated language, but we are not able to do the same with a foreign one unless we are proficient. So, we must strip off all unnecessary (in this very particular moment) linguistic ornaments and search for words and phrases within our reach. I have given this advice to all the executives I have taught so far, and none has complained about it. But what to do when we think the word we need is, in a given case, irreplaceable?

All words are replaceable! If this was not true lawyers would not be able to transform legal jargon for their clients into plain and digestible contents and doctors would not be able to inform patients what is happening in their organism. The problem lies elsewhere—we cannot find the right substitutes. For this we must learn SYNONYMS. Learning synonyms may seem like a school task, but in fact it is very good exercise for developing our brain, not only for memory, but also for improving lateral thinking and making logical connections, and it’s good both for adolescents and adults. Knowing synonyms decreases the risk of communication breakdown when you forget a given word. Here’s an example of a simple exercise for learning synonyms. Try to find at least one synonym or a word or phrase close in meaning to each of the following:

You’ll find suggestions of answers at the end of the article, so you can compare yours and see how it went for you.

There will of course be times when finding a suitable synonym is challenging or problematic, especially when you are in the middle of a sentence and want to finish your thought. Sometimes some words do not have direct synonyms and can be replaced only by other words close in meaning. In both cases you should take advantage of another tactic of making a DETOUR—describing. It is a powerful way of explaining what we mean if we do not know the exact word. We naturally do it in our mother tongue when we actually miss a word or can’t recall it fast. Children do it very often because their vocabulary is much narrower than adults’. Let me give you an example how it works when we have a clear set of definitions (descriptions) assigned to each and every noun or a proper name (because you know their meanings, properties, qualities, differentiators). You’re telling your friend about a movie and she is asking you who is starring. You immediately see the face of an actor and reply like this:

‘It’s [the movie] with… (awkward pause), with… Oh my God, I can’t recall his name, oh come on! The one who starred in Gladiator!’

‘Russell Crowe’

‘Yes, Russell Crowe!’

You have just described the actor by giving the flagship example, one of the biggest hits he’s starred in. When something like this (forgetting a crucial word) occurs next time in a conversation, try to describe the word you are missing. It is fairly easy with concrete nouns, more challenging are abstract concepts, verbs or adjectives, but this a skill to be perfected and it is invaluable. There is however a general approach one can apply to describing all parts of speech and of course not all of them can be described or require a description, like personal pronouns or prepositions, which are basically described in terms of their function in the language rather than their inherent meaning. Let’s focus then on the most typical cases of describing parts of speech.


Take an apple. What is it? It is fruit, isn’t it? Does this suffice to determine the object named ‘apple’? Apparently not. What else do we need, what categories are necessary to ultimately define an apple? Well, let’s keep it as simple as possible. It is a kind of fruit. In shape it’s like a ball, and in size it’s like an adult’s fist. It can be red, green, yellow, yellow-red, green-red. Is that enough? Now here’s where the interesting part comes in. Is this more detailed description enough to define a thing called ‘an apple’?

Maybe some of us would immediately say ‘yes’ to this, but if we consider it more deeply, we will definitely agree, that some others might think of a mango! A mango is indeed more elliptical, but still there are round kinds of mango, too, and it’s a fact, that some balls (in context of sports) are elliptical. So, the conclusion is that we must always be sure, that a description we give instead of a missing word is clear and unambiguous—obviously we are taking a detour in order to reach our destination and not to get even more stuck.

What’s also important is to realize that each noun can pose a different degree of difficulty in describing something, and what seems an easy go, like an apple, can turn out to be harder to describe than we previously thought. Although we perfectly know what an apple looks like and how it tastes, it is not so obvious how to precisely describe it using a simple language. Getting back to our example, to distinguish apple from mango, we would have to introduce an additional criterion, like geographical existence or economic importance for a country, which makes the detour harder. Having said that, I must here and now admit that taking a detour must be a conscious decision—as it may lead us astray. Some words do not have synonyms, but that does not exclude the possibility of describing them, others are hard to describe, and in some other cases it is just better to know the exact word. If we keep forgetting a word which we tend to use quite often, it’s worth considering learning it for good. It’s no secret that learning synonyms is just more work for which we do not always have time. Learning how to describe does not release us from the effort we must make for the description to be logical and clear.

Can you find a synonym or give a simple description of the words below?

You’ll find possible answers at the end of the article. You may conclude that categorisation is the crucial element in building a good and simple description, as it’s faster to define anything if we focus on the fundamental properties of an object or qualities and causes of an action if we think about verbs. And it does not mean that if a word/object is common it is automatically easy to define.

Verbs and adjectives

In this case we must remember what is the best way to describe these parts of speech if we do not know the synonym. Verbs define actions, so the descriptions will require another verb (simpler or more common) and a noun or more nouns. Consider the verb ‘to deposit’. To deposit (money) is to put money in the bank to earn more in future. We combine a simple verb ‘to put’ with a common noun ‘a bank’ to create a clear description supported by additional criterion— ‘earning in future’. In this way you can approach even the most complicated verbs. You will challenge yourselves later with some examples.

Adjectives define states of things and the simplest approach is to give an opposing adjective with negation. So, if we for some reason forgot the word ‘expensive’, we should say ‘not cheap’. Some adjectives are however much more difficult to explain and usually it is faster to give a synonym than to describe it by introducing an opposing one. Let’s consider ‘relevant’. It basically means ‘important’, but also ‘adequate’, ‘aforementioned’, ‘proper’, or ‘useful’. In this case it is easier to learn these extra synonyms (depending on a context) than to try to explain in all contexts.

Before we move on to the end of our considerations, try yourselves out and find synonyms or descriptions for the words below:

Final thoughts

To sum up, the approach presented above is nothing really original, quite the opposite, it’s a natural and common way of maintaining communication when we encounter a moment of hesitation, when a crucial word eludes us. But despite its obvious usage it may sometimes cause more problems than before if we handle it improperly, turning a detour into a dead end. Some words are sometimes even harder to explain or define than simply learning them in the first place. In order to master the art of paraphrasing and describing, one must focus on proper categorisation and classification. Attributing categories and properties is of utmost significance here. The more precisely we can attribute a category to a word the better the definition.

Attributing categories and properties requires knowing the basics of a language, but handling them well can do miracles. It is truly logical and we most probably possess this knowledge through our native tongue. So, what should we focus on? Let’s always start with the most common, prevailing and fundamental means of conveying a meaning. What does it mean? It means what most people think about when they hear a given word. What associations do they make? What are the most typical contexts it exists in?

Let’s consider the word ‘a permission’. It is used quite frequently, especially in business language, and therefore important and worth knowing. We can’t recall it and we want to say that company X has not been given a permission. Synonyms in this case are a limited option, so we decide to describe what we mean. How, then, are we going to approach this? What is a permission?


  1. What is the most common category? => A DOCUMENT;
  2. What is its role? => IT ALLOWS SOMEONE TO DO SOMETHING; (we do not remember the verb ‘to allow’, so we must find a detour within a detour);
  4. Who gives it? => IT IS ISSUED BY DIFFERENT AUTHORITIES; (we do not know the word ‘to issue’ and we forgot the word ‘authorities’);

In this example you may more or less see the logic behind making detours, behind describing and saying something in other words. It requires much practice but it is not difficult. Remember that attributing categories and properties is crucial. Therefore it is crucial to get to know the names of categories and properties of objects, ideas, concepts. If you want to describe a bike it is good to know that it is a vehicle (main category). If you want to describe parsley, you should know it’s a vegetable. If you want to describe a tender, it’s worth remembering that it is a kind of auction. Later you may add more properties or qualities which make our description more precise (like with the example of ‘an apple’ above).

There is still a little bit to say on the topic, but we will get back to it on several occasions in future. It is undoubtedly worth keeping in mind that there are expressions which can win us some time when we get stuck and do not know what to say. Apply them regularly when you happen again to forget an important word or phrase in a conversation. Below you will find some useful equivalents of the phrase ‘in other words’, which may initiate a detour:

  • What I mean is…
  • What I want to say is, that…
  • Let me put it this way:…
  • I can’t name it, but it is something like…

Always try to explain or describe what you want if your vocabulary is too modest to express it literally. Remember, though, that describing is not always simple, even if you get to know some proven rules, templates to tap into. Even if you focus perfectly on categories, such as a person, a thing, a concept, a system, a size, a colour, the main usage etc., it may not always be easy to choose among different contexts to refer to the right meaning. Consider the verb ‘to cut’, given as an example above. Look at a possible description that I have given. Is it precisely what you thought?

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