When you’re listening to someone in a conversation, how do you show that you’re… listening? Most often, people make some sounds (e.g. “uh-huh” or “mmhmm”) or use some words (“interesting!”) to do this.
Linguists call this “backchanneling,” and it’s a very important part of a conversation. In fact, how you backchannel can even change how someone tells you a story!
The problem is that people learning English as a foreign language often pick one form of backchanneling and stick to it. For example, one of our tutors noticed that a student used “uh-huh” during an entire conversation.
This is the most common response that comes naturally to most of us and it’s often overused which in turn makes the listener sound insincere. And, depending on your body language, you can come off as uncaring or like you’re not even listening! For example:
Liam: So I went to a pizza restaurant today...
Liam: ...and I ordered a cheese pizza...
Liam: ...but they took half an hour to make it!
Liam is complaining, but Alejandro responds only with “uh-huh” which makes it sound like he doesn’t care.
There are better ways to respond in a conversation than just “uh-huh.” So let’s learn some useful English phrases that can make our responses sound more natural!
In a conversation, you usually don’t just want to show that you’re listening even though that’s the most important part. It’s also a good idea to show your conversation partner that you’re interested in what they’re saying.
The following reactions will show your partner that you really want to know what they have to say:
While these are all great ways to show interest, there are some slight differences. For example, saying “wow!” shows that you’re impressed.
Lastly, keep in mind that “Nice!” here doesn’t mean “kind.” Instead, it means “cool!” or “well done!” For example, if someone says they passed a test, you could reply with “nice!”
Here’s how you can use them:
A: I went to a Japanese hair salon today.
B: Cool! / Nice!
A: They even gave me a head massage!
Here are some common English phrases to show you approve of something your conversation partner said or did:
Saying “that makes sense” tells the speaker that you agree with their reasoning for doing something. In other words, their reasoning makes sense.
The “call” in “good call” means “decision.” So “good call” means “good decision” or “I think you did the right thing.”
Check out this dialogue to see how they’re used:
Chef: We forgot an order today, so one of our customers ended up waiting 30 minutes for his pizza! I felt bad for him, so I didn't charge him.
David: Good call.
Chef: Even though we lost a bit of money, I thought it would be better to keep the customer happy.
David: Yeah, that makes sense!
There are times when you want to show that you agree with your conversation partner. To do that, you can use the following:
“I agree” and “I think so, too” are the most basic ways to agree with someone. If you want to emphasize how much you think someone’s right, you can say, “I totally agree.”
“That’s true” and “that’s a good point” also show agreement. However, notice that they don’t use “I,” which makes them more objective.
In other words, when you say “that’s true” or “that’s a good point,” you technically aren’t saying what you think. You’re saying something is objectively true or that it is a good point that you may not have thought of.
To better understand this distinction, check out this dialogue:
Arisa: I think the hairstylist did a good job with my hair.
Nina: I agree. / I think so too.
Arisa: Having a great haircut really makes you feel more confident.
Nina: That's true. / That's a good point. / I agree. / I think so too.
This is because “I agree” and “I think so too” can be used to agree with both subjective and objective statements.
On the other hand, “That’s true” and “That’s a good point” don’t work with subjective statements (“Arisa’s hair is pretty”) because the purpose of replying isn’t to judge if the statement is true or if it’s “a good point.”
When someone is sharing bad news, make sure you respond in the right way! Here are some casual phrases you can use:
Keep in mind that “oh my god” or “oh my goodness” can be used for both positive and negative situations.
See how these expressions are used in this dialogue:
A: So I went to a pizza restaurant today and I ordered a cheese pizza, but they took half an hour to make it.
B: Oh no! / That sucks! / Oh my god!
And here are some phrases you can use in more serious situations:
A: My cat died last night.
B: Oh no. I'm sorry to hear that!
Showing doubt is another way to respond to your conversation partner. Try these reactions:
A: They even gave me a head massage!
B: Wait, really?
A: Yeah! It was amazing! Apparently, this is normal for Japanese hair salons.
B: Really? / Are you sure?
Of course, don’t doubt everything your conversation partner says!
Now you can add some variety to your responses. What was your favorite one? Try to use them in your next conversation. Or, practice using them in a lesson. Sign up for a free lesson now!