No More Misunderstandings

Paraphrasing - When, Why, and How

Our ability to interpret, pattern-match, and translate information is remarkable, and helps us function in life and at work. While engaged in a tough conversation, however, this premature analysis may hurt us. 

For example, if your teammate asks, “Is there any way this project can be done faster?” you might take that to mean, “You are moving too slowly,” or "I don't trust that you've thought this through."

Or if your roommate says, “I feel like I’ve been doing all the chores lately,” you might object internally with, “That’s not true! I did the dishes this morning!”

A harmless question could escalate into a series of misunderstandings, leaving us feeling attacked or invisible. In most cases, these reactions happen imperceptibly, and we move towards feeling uncomfortable or defensive without knowing how we got there. 

There’s no easy way to breakpoint (pause) this very natural, very human cycle of interpretation, but there is an answer to the question of how to listen and come away with mutual understanding. That answer is paraphrasing.

Why Paraphrase?

Paraphrasing is sharing your interpretation of what you’ve heard in your own words. 

It has the following benefits:

  1. Paraphrasing encourages you to pay attention to what the speaker is saying because you’ll need to repeat it back to them.

  2. Paraphrasing allows the speaker to correct your interpretation of what they said.

  3. Paraphrasing allows the speaker to correct their own message after hearing it mirrored back to them.

  4. Paraphrasing helps the speaker feel understood.

  5. Paraphrasing saves time.

Paraphrasing encourages you to pay attention.

Set the intention to paraphrase what the speaker says near the beginning of the conversation. If you aren’t able to paraphrase what they said, ask them to repeat it.

This happens to me often:

Teammate: Would you mind sending over this quarter’s product roadmap?

Me: I see, so you want me to………sorry, could you repeat that?

Teammate: Would you mind sending over this quarter’s product roadmap?

Me: You want me to send over this quarter’s product roadmap. Yes, will do!

Asking the speaker to repeat what they said is okay. You don’t need to get it right the first time, you just need to get it right.

Paraphrasing gives the speaker an opportunity to correct your interpretation of what they said.

The software that lives inside your mind is not the same as the software that lives inside the speaker’s mind. Give the speaker a chance to work with you to get to the right interpretation.

Teammate: “I've observed that you haven't been paying attention during the project meetings recently. Would you mind participating more?”

Paraphrased: “You've noticed I don’t pay attention during meetings, and you want me to participate more?”

Teammate: “No, you pay attention during most meetings. I’ve only noticed that you haven’t been paying attention during our daily project meetings.”

Paraphrasing gives the speaker the opportunity to correct their own message.

Communication isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s hard to get it right the first time. Give the speaker a chance to revise what they said.

Manager: “Your communication could improve. I never know what you're working on.”

Paraphrased: “You're having trouble understanding what I'm working on. Should I give you more updates?”

Manager: “Actually, I do know what you’re working on. I’m just unable to understand whether the project will still make the deadline.”

Paraphrasing helps the speaker feel understood.

Teammate: “When you cut me off as I’m explaining something, it makes me feel like my opinion doesn't matter.”

Non-paraphrased: “I didn’t realize I was doing that, I’m sorry.”

Think of how that sounds compared to:

Paraphrased: “I’ve cut you off a few times, and that makes you feel like I don't value your opinion. I didn’t realize I was doing that. I’m sorry.”

Michael Schreiner notes in The Need to be Understood that, “The unconscious fear that seems to always be lurking in the background is that if we aren’t understood it will be as if we never existed.”

The response with paraphrasing feels better because it conveys understanding and thus validates our existence. When we feel understood, we feel safe.

Paraphrasing also makes you more likely to recognize and respond to the words and feelings the speaker expressed in their feedback to you.

Teammate: “When you cut me off as I’m explaining something, it makes me feel like my opinion doesn't matter.”

Paraphrased: “I’ve cut you off a few times, and that makes you feel like I don't value your opinion. I didn’t realize I was doing that. And I do value your opinion. I’m sorry.”

Paraphrasing saves time.

“Studies in labor-management negotiations demonstrate that the time required to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the previous speaker had said.” - Marshall B. Rosenberg in Nonviolent Communication.

Paraphrasing minimizes misunderstandings. At the end of a conversation, you and the speaker will leave with the same interpretation, which will reduce the need for a follow-up.

Without Paraphrasing

Lumbergh: “Can you send over the TPS report this evening?”

Peter: “Oh, sure.”

****** Hours later, on Slack ******

Peter: “Hi, you wanted the TPS report this evening. By TPS did you mean the tea party spec?”

Lumbergh: “…no, I meant the test procedure spec.”

Peter: “Oh, I can’t do that by this evening.”

Lumbergh: “Ok. Now I have to find someone else. 👎”

With Paraphrasing

Lumbergh: “Can you send over the TPS report this evening?”

Peter: “You want me to send you the tea party spec this evening?”

Lumbergh: “...no, the test procedure spec.”

Peter: “No, I can’t do that by this evening.”

Lumbergh: “Ok! I’ll find someone else. 👍”

Paraphrasing in Your Personal Life

Paraphrasing is useful in a professional context, but can be invaluable in a personal context. 

The more we care about the person we’re speaking with, the more we need to feel understood by them and the more we fear becoming invisible to them.

When engaged in an emotional conversation with friends or family, paraphrase to help them feel seen.

Partner: “I’m frustrated, tired, and sad.”

Paraphrased: “You’re feeling frustrated, tired, and sad. I’m here for you.”

When to Paraphrase

It never hurts to paraphrase just like it never hurts to double-check your answers on a test, but it doesn’t add value in every situation.

I recommend paraphrasing in the following situations both in your professional and personal lives:

  1. After receiving a request.

  2. After receiving feedback.

  3. When the speaker is sharing something vulnerable.

  4. If you’re unsure of what the speaker meant.

Tone

While paraphrasing, keep in mind that the tone you use is important. There’s no one-size-fits-all tone for every situation, but as a general guideline, use a curious tone over a declarative tone, and definitely steer clear of any tone that sounds remotely sarcastic.

Your tone should convey the desire to clarify and understand what the speaker said. If you don't have this desire, don't fake it, just revisit the conversation later. You can respond with something like, “I need a moment to process this. Would you mind if I reached out to you later to continue the conversation?”

Sometimes, I express my intent upfront before paraphrasing, just in case I’m unable to regulate my tone: “Can I repeat what you said back to you, just to make sure I understand?” or “Here’s what I understood from what you said...” 

Conclusion

Paraphrasing is like magic pixie dust you can sprinkle into any conversation to make it more positive and productive. It will leave the person you're speaking with feeling understood and validated. By paraphrasing, you will save time, your work will be more accurate, and you'll be applauded for being a good communicator and listener. 

Try paraphrasing this week and see if you notice a difference. If this is a new experiment for you, please respond to this post and let me know how it went!

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