Communication 201: The Power of the Paraphrase

Whenever I work with couples on the ubiquitous issue of communication, the topic of paraphrasing never fails to arise.

Perhaps this is because, even though the concept is fairly straightforward and has been around since the dinosaurs, it falls cleanly into the category of “easier said than done.”

In case you’re one of the 6 people in the developed world who has never heard of paraphrasing, it is defined as the action of “expressing the meaning of the speaker using different words to achieve greater clarity.”

Using the definition above, here’s a quick primer on what constitutes great paraphrasing (and what doesn’t):

Express the meaning:  If your spouse criticizes you for working too much or spending too much time away from home, it may be tempting to respond defensively with a quick rationale; however, reading between the lines and saying, “It sounds like you might be feeling as if I’m not available to you or we’re not spending enough quality time together.  Is that right? ” is a way of paraphrasing and might lead to a very important discussion that needs to be had.

Use different words:  Simply mimicking what you’ve just heard is not helpful and can actually be counterproductive.  Rookie mistake.  For example, if your spouse were to assert “We always go to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving and I don’t want to go this year“, responding with “So you don’t want to go to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving this year?” is not only redundant but really annoying.  It would be better to, again, try to capture the feeling behind the initial comment and reply with something like, “It sounds like you think we need to renegotiate where we spend our holidays so it feels fair and equitable to both of us.  How does that sound?”

Close the loop:  As demonstrated in the examples above, it’s critical that you follow these two steps with a final one – – that of checking in with your partner to ensure that you interpreted their statements correctly.  Ending your paraphrase with something like, “Did I get that fully?”, or “Am I on the right track?” will save you time, miscommunication, and heartache.  Icing on the cake would be for you to take the initiative and take action, such as, “Why don’t we sit down after the kids are in bed tonight and talk about our options?”

In sum, paraphrasing, like any other skill, takes intention and practice but can have a HUGE effect on our partners and their experience of being deeply understood and truly heard.

Much of our work with couples involves teaching both parties to listen and respond to the other in a way that makes them feel validated and affirmed.  If you’d like our support, reach out to us today!



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What are some ways you’ve learned to paraphrase effectively when communicating with your spouse?


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