Show You’re Listening with Intonation – Short Questions and Responses For Better Conversations in English

Go on… What happened? I know! Seriously?! No way!

Want to have better conversations in English?

Then show you’re listening and interested by using short expressions and questions that reflect how you feel through your intonation.

These expressions and questions are rejoinders or short responses that show you’re actively participating and engaged in the conversation.

Without them, the conversation may feel a little one-sided and the other person may feel less motivated to keep talking.

To keep the conversation going, use these expressions and questions with intonation that reflects how you feel about what you just heard.

Intonation is how you change your pitch or your tone of voice in order to express different emotions and attitudes when speaking.

When we’re having a conversation, we often use intonation that reflects or mirrors how the other person is feeling.

This is how we show that we’re connecting during the conversation. Let’s get started!


Short Expressions That Show You’re Listening with Intonation

First, let’s look at a couple of simple expressions that we can use to clearly signal that we’re listening and encourage the other person to keep talking:

  • Go on… Go on… Go on…
  • Tell me more… Tell me more… Tell me more…

In these expressions, you can hear holding intonation, or a slight rise that signals that you’re not trying to interrupt.

You’re reflecting the other person’s incomplete idea or story back to them.

Let’s try it again:

  • Go on… Go on… Go on…
  • Tell me more… Tell me more… Tell me more…

This intonation on these words is like nodding and saying, “Mmmhmm… Mmmhmm… Mmmhmm… Uh huh… Uh huh… Uh huh…”

You can hear a very similar intonation pattern on “Go on…” and “Tell me more…”

Remember to check out part one of this series where you’ll learn how to respond naturally in conversations using short words and sounds with the right intonation.


Ask Short Questions to Encourage the Other Person to Keep Talking

Another great way to show you’re listening and encourage the other person to keep telling their story is to ask short questions.

These short questions aren’t meant to interrupt or redirect the conversation.

They encourage the other person to keep talking on the same subject and show that you’re listening, you’re engaged, and you want to hear more of what they have to say.

Once again, your intonation matters.

Because these are short information questions, you’re going to use falling intonation, but a higher rise on the question signals your interest.

Let’s practice:

  • What happened? What happened? What happened?
  • What happened next? What happened next? What happened next?
  • What did she say? What did she say? What did she say?
  • Where did he go? Where did he go? Where did go?
  • Why’d he do that? Why’d he do that? Why’d he do that?
  • How come? How come? How come?
  • Why was that? Why was that? Why was that?

As you can hear, the higher pitch on these questions is encouraging the other person to keep sharing details of their story.

If you use different intonation patterns with these questions, it may express different emotions and attitudes, which we’ll talk about in just a moment.

Remember, the question you choose is in response to what the other person said.

There are many possible questions you can ask, but remember to keep them short.

You’re not trying to redirect the conversation and get your question answered.

You’re trying to encourage the other person to keep going and keep talking.


Show You Understand What The Other Person is Feeling

To show empathy for what the other person is feeling or to show you understand what they’re trying to express and why they felt the way they did, you can use one of these expressions:

  • I see. I see. I see.
  • I understand. I understand. I understand.
  • I know. I know. I know.
  • Sure. Sure. Sure.
  • For sure. For sure. For sure.
  • Of course. Of course. Of course.
  • No kidding. No kidding. No kidding.
  • Definitely. Definitely. Definitely.

Once again, the slight rise on these short responses shows that you understand how the other person feels.

You’re probably naturally nodding along and showing the other person that you hear what they’re saying.

This is the verbal way to show that same emotion.


Express Shock or Surprise With Your Intonation

What happens if the other person says something that’s shocking or surprising?

In this case, you want to use one of these following expressions with rising intonation.

We use rising intonation to show shock, surprise, and disbelief.

Listen to this steep rise at the end. This is how you’re going to express this emotion.

  • Really? Really? Really?
  • Seriously? Seriously? Seriously?
  • Are you serious? Are you serious? Are you serious?
  • Are you for real? Are you for real? Are you for real?
  • Were they for real? Were they for real? Were they for real?

Express Negative Feelings Like Disappointment, Disapproval, and Annoyance

On the other hand, if you want to show negative feelings such as disappointment, negative disbelief, disapproval, or annoyance, your intonation will change.

When you’re expressing a negative feeling, you’ll use a steep rise and then a fall.

These next expressions can show shock or surprise, or disbelief and disappointment, depending on the intonation.

Let’s compare them:

  • You’re kidding! (rise) You’re kidding! (fall) You’re kidding! (rise) You’re kidding! (fall) You’re kidding! (rise) You’re kidding! (fall)
  • You’ve got to be kidding! (rise) You’ve got to be kidding! (fall) You’ve got to be kidding! (rise) You’ve got to be kidding! (fall) You’ve got to be kidding! (rise) You’ve got to be kidding! (fall)
  • Come on! (rise) Come on! (fall) Come on! (rise) Come on! (fall) Come on! (rise) Come on! (fall)
  • No way! (rise) No way! (fall) No way! (rise) No way! (fall) No way! (rise) No way!

Respond with an Adjective That Reflects How You Feel

You can also respond with a quick adjective that reflects how you feel about what they said.

Once again, your intonation will reflect the emotion:

  • That’s great! That’s great! That’s great!
  • That’s awesome! That’s awesome! That’s awesome!
  • That’s amazing! That’s amazing! That’s amazing!
  • That’s interesting! That’s interesting! That’s interesting!
  • That’s exciting! That’s exciting! That’s exciting!

You may also choose to drop the word “that’s”:

  • Great!
  • Awesome!
  • Interesting!
  • Amazing!
  • Exciting!

As you can hear, the rising intonation on these exclamations expresses excitement and enthusiasm.

If the other person’s talking about something that’s more negative, disappointing, or depressing, your intonation will reflect that:

  • That’s terrible. That’s terrible. That’s terrible.
  • That’s too bad. That’s too bad. That’s too bad.
  • That’s sad. That’s sad. That’s sad.
  • That’s so sad. That’s so sad. That’s so sad.
  • That’s unfortunate. That’s unfortunate. That’s unfortunate.

As you can hear, the overall intonation is flatter and there’s a drop at the end.

If something is shocking in a negative way, try one of these expressions:

  • That’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous.
  • That’s unbelievable. That’s unbelievable. That’s unbelievable.

As you can hear, there’s a lot of emotion behind these words.

Your pitch will change a lot, but you’ll end with falling intonation.

These days, I find myself saying “That’s intense” a lot.

It’s a nicer way to say “That’s crazy,” while still acknowledging the emotion that the other person’s expressing.

Let’s try it: That’s intense. That’s intense. That’s intense.

Remember, you’ll stress the adjective and then fall afterwards.

On the happier words, your pitch will climb.

On the sadder or darker ones, your pitch will stay flat or low.

Remember, if the intonation doesn’t match the feeling, it can change the meaning.


Improve Your Intonation in Conversations

As you can see, these expressions and questions are an excellent way to keep the conversation going.

They’re an easy way to participate in the conversation without interrupting.

Instead, you’re showing the other person that you’re interested in what they have to say.

Of course, they’re an excellent way to practice changing your pitch and your intonation.

By using these rejoinders more regularly when interacting with native speakers, you’ll be able to show interest and connect in conversation.

For even more practice on how to use intonation in conversation, check out the Intonation Clinic. This course will help you get more control over how you use your voice to express your meaning in American English.

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