- Wendy Lynch and Clydette de Groot
The Power of an Authentic Paraphrase
Authentic paraphrases give power to important conversations.
One study found that of nine non-verbal actions (such as eye contact, nodding, body language) and four verbal actions (such as paraphrasing and asking open questions) paraphrasing had the strongest effect on ratings of the listener’s effectiveness. Paraphrasing, reflecting and asking open questions had the greatest impact on whether the speaking person felt better after the conversation. (1)
Paraphrasing is a simple action, really: in an interested but neutral tone, one person reflects back essential points the other person said.
It takes some practice to incorporate paraphrases naturally and habitually into conversations. Paraphrasing can feel a little awkward at first. We’re trying something new. When people learn about paraphrasing, they often wonder about its value. Some ask: won’t the other person wonder why I am saying the same thing? Or: won’t they get irritated that I’m parroting their words? The answer to both questions is no; done with authentic interest, paraphrasing feels quite normal and reassuring. Plus, it enriches the interaction.
In Get to What Matters, paraphrases are one of the ways we help others unpack their backstory. The many values of paraphrasing include:
Keeping ourselves present in the conversation (because we need to pay attention to be able to say their words back to them).
Demonstrating to the other person that we have heard them.
Slowing down the conversation to give ourselves and the other person time to consider what matters.
Creating a mental “white board.” When we paraphrase the other person moves beyond their first (possibly automatic) thoughts and uncovers things that they have not considered before.
As you practice paraphrasing, pay attention to using their exact words rather than applying your judgement or perception of what they mean. For example, if someone says: I’m disappointed I didn’t get that job. A clean paraphrase is: <with empathy> uh-huh, you’re disappointed you didn’t get it. Instead of something like: you’re upset they chose someone else.
It takes some conscious effort. When we’re in a rush, it’s tempting to respond to a person’s first comment. Oh, don’t be disappointed! Another job will come along. Maybe it wasn’t right for you anyway… etc. But if we paraphrase, the other person can examine and move through their disappointment, gaining some insight on their own experience.
Hearing their words reflected back---perhaps several consecutive times---clears mind space to get to what really matters (about not getting the job, or whatever).
It’s amazing how well paraphrasing advances a conversation to new realizations. Given the uncommon opportunity to reflect, we can make small, sometimes profound discoveries of what matters. So in your next important conversation, notice what happens when you slow down and paraphrase what another person has just said.
(1) Bodie, G. et al. The Role of “Active Listening” in Informal Helping Conversations: Impact on Perceptions of Listener Helpfulness, Sensitivity, and Supportiveness and Discloser Emotional Improvement. 2015 Western Journal of Communication 79(2):151-173.