Couples’ Communication 201: The Power of the Paraphrase

Whenever I work with couples on the ever-present subject of communication in their relationship, the how-to’s of paraphrasing never fail to come up.

Perhaps this is because, even though the concept of paraphrasing is fairly straightforward, it falls into the category of “easier said than done.”

In case you have never heard of paraphrasing, it is defined as the action of “expressing the meaning of the speaker using different words to achieve greater clarity.”

 

If you’re in a new relationship and would like to learn more about communication,
check out my blog on When Reality Hits: Dealing With Your First Fight.

 

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

man and woman talkingExpress 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.  Instead, 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 a way of paraphrasing and might lead to an 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.  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 try to capture the core feeling or intent behind the initial comment and reply with something like, “It sounds like we need to renegotiate where we spend Thanksgiving so it feels fair to both of us.”

Close the loop:  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, headaches, and heartaches. Icing on the cake would be for you to then initiate some kind of resolution or action such as, “Why don’t we sit down after the kids are in bed tonight and talk about our options?”

Paraphrasing, like any other skill, takes intention and practice but can have a HUGE effect on our partners and their experience of being truly heard.  And once they feel heard and understood, they’re much more likely to offer that gift to you.

Much of my work with couples involves teaching partners to listen and respond to each other in a way that makes them feel validated and affirmed.  If you think your marriage could use a boost in this area, get in touch!

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This article was originally published on June 5, 2018 but has been revised and updated for this release.

 

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