Listening and Paraphrasing – Communication Bookends

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and to be understood.
The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

Ralph Nichols


Paraphrasing is the skill that is evidence we have listened. It is the skill that feeds the human need Nichols speaks of in the quotation above. When we paraphrase what the person wants or the emotion they are feeling, we also send the message we are fully present and we understand or are trying to understand. Thus, listening and paraphrasing go together much like bookends for the communication process.

Described as the most underutilized skill, paraphrasing is often a skill we have learned is at the bottom of our tool kit as communicators. When we ask you why paraphrasing is not used, here are some of the responses we hear:

  • We learned parroting rather than eloquence in paraphrasing.
  • We are afraid we will get it wrong.
  • It sounds inauthentic; more like a pattern of speech we have learned.

Paraphrasing is a skill most of us learned prior to the more recent neuroscience regarding SCARF and in particular the S or Status of SCARF. What we now understand about the importance of making our language about the other person reinforces the potential power of this skill. Learning to flip the language from “I” to “you” now makes sense when we consider it from the brain’s perspective. The metaphor we use to illustrate this concept is a flashlight beam or spotlight. Our goal is to keep the beam of light on the other person. So, instead of “what I hear you saying” which makes it about us, we change the language to “you want . . . your goal . . . your desire . . . or you’re feeling . . .“ which makes it all about the other person, giving status and keeping the ray of light focused on the speaker.

Worrying about getting the paraphrase wrong is not necessary. We say, “When you get it wrong, you get it right!” because you bring clarity to the conversation. An example that teaches this valuable lesson was a time when someone came to one of us visibly upset. The paraphrase was, “You are very angry about the way you were treated in this interaction.” The person responded, “No, I am not angry. I am hurt and disappointed.” NOW . . . , we knew what we were taking about. Hurt and disappointment are very different from anger. When you demonstrate a sincere attempt to “listen for”, the person will sense the intent, feel the safety, and will let you know when you have not hit the nail on the head. It may sound like, “Not exactly.” or “Kind of, but what I really meant was . . .” On the other hand, when you have hit the nail on the head, you may hear, “Exactly!” or “Yes! That’s what I meant and you said it better than I did.”

Two additional lessons we have learned that add power potential to paraphrasing are the importance of silence and the notion of less is more. As educators, we are highly proficient with language. Often we use a lot of words in an attempt to ensure we are understood. We have learned that “less is more” with regard to a powerful paraphrase. When we listen for essence, passion, or possibility, we need fewer words than when we thought we had to repeat everything the person said in our paraphrase (parroting). When we flood the person with an abundance of language, it confuses the brain and invites fuzziness into the conversation. We listen for the heart of the spoken word and give it back in a brief, crisp paraphrase. Often, fifteen words or less, or even three to five when applicable, will convey a much more powerful message than a paraphrase with an “and” that extends the sentence and invites old patterns of speaking into the equation. In our seminars, when an “and” creeps into our conversations, we playfully say, “Put a period at the end. KISS it – Keep it simple sweetie!”

In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott (2002) writes, “silence is sometimes the answer.” In the context of paraphrasing, deliver the paraphrase followed by silence. Do not utter another sentence AND most certainly not a question. Let silence do the heavy lifting. Silence is where thinking lives; it’s where I can discover awareness, create my own answers, and consider my next steps. This is where we learn that paraphrasing followed by silence can replace many of our questions. Suzie McNeese, one of our elementary principals discovered this for herself when she proclaimed, “Today, during a coaching session, I realized that when I wanted to ask clarifying questions, it was for me to try to solve the problem for the other person. Instead, by listening for and paraphrasing, I was allowing the person to solve the problem themselves.”

When done eloquently, paraphrasing holds the potential for a highly effective communication skill. It can even replace the need for a question. Paraphrasing is evidence of our committed listening. Without our full presence, we cannot paraphrase eloquently. So, how is this done? – by simply “listening for” which was fully developed in the March ezine. Here is a reminder of what we “Listen For”:

  • What the person wants
  • Emotion
  • Passion
  • Options, possibilities, potential
  • What is already working
  • Reframes
    • Negative to Positive
    • Problem to Solution
    • Complaint to Commitment

Putting these two skills together as if they were bookends, demonstrates our full presence for what is of value to the person. Rather than parroting back exactly what the person has said, we go deeper for the essence of what they want, the emotion they are feeling, or their vision of possibility. We will practice putting these two together in this month’s blog.

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Karen Anderson, PCC, M. Ed.

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2 thoughts on “Listening and Paraphrasing – Communication Bookends

  1. A wise person once told me (when I was 31) that with maturity, one gets progressively more and more comfortable with silence and feels less and less of the urge to fill the space.

    1. Yes, and I now realize that when we use a lot of words it put the emphasis back on us as the coach rather than the beam of light being on the most important person — the client.

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