Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Are you sure your partner said that?
Here’s what Tom said to Carol: “Looks like your end of the housework isn’t going to get done, so I’ll take up the slack.”
What Carol hears: Tom has just said that not only has she not finished her half of the housework, but he doesn’t expect her to. She feels hurt and angry.
Tom has no idea why Carol is so upset. He thinks that all he did was observe that she hadn’t started yet and is offering to do her share.
And what if each of them had thought bubbles over their heads as they were talking? Most likely, Carol’s might have read something like: “I can’t believe he would accuse me of not doing my part.” And Tom’s something like: “She may not be feeling well, so why don’t I let her off the hook on the chores and do her part, too?”
At this point, they aren’t speaking.
So what happened? Tom made a statement. Carol heard it one way. Tom meant it another way. She reacted to what she heard. He reacted to her reaction. The results? Hurt feelings on both sides, a missed opportunity to be a team, and a missed chance to get the household chores out of the way.
Do you ever find yourself in a conversation with your partner that seems to quickly snowball into hurt or angry feelings, confusion, accusations…or just silence? A chronic condition introduces new challenges in a relationship, including support needs that may vary from day to day, and adjustments in daily routine, among others. Along with these challenges come new opportunities for misunderstanding and the emotions that can result.
One way to avoid misunderstanding is through clearer communication. And one way to communicate more clearly is by using the paraphrase technique.
Mental health professionals have been paraphrasing for years. If you haven’t talked to a counselor before, and heard your counselor paraphrase what you say, then you have probably seen this demonstrated (if not made fun of) on TV or in a movie.
Hint: “It sounds like…”
When you paraphrase, you are basically repeating back to the other person what you think you heard them say. Not word for word, but the “essence.” When you paraphrase, you are testing your understanding of what the other person said to make sure you are clear with each other—before you react to their words.
For example, before Carol reacted to what felt like accusatory and unkind words from Tom, she might have paraphrased what she thought she heard, with something like:
“I just want to make sure I understand you. You are saying that it looks like I don’t intend to do what I said I would do. And you are going to be stuck with all the work.”
At this point, Tom could have responded with, “No Carol, that’s not at all what I meant. I wasn’t clear.”
Tom could then have restated what he meant, using words that would have more closely matched what he wanted to convey to Carol. And who knows? The rest of the day might have gone a whole lot more smoothly.
Paraphrasing has more than one benefit. The obvious benefit is that expectations and intentions are clarified, and misunderstandings are avoided. Paraphrasing what the other person said also shows them you are listening to them and that you want to make sure you are getting their message. Paraphrasing what someone else says is showing them respect.
Want to use more paraphrasing in your communications? Here’s how to do it:
First, take a step back and breathe. When someone says something to you that pushes an emotional button, it is human nature to feel a rush of feelings. The problem is that it’s also human nature to act on those feelings, as Carol did. Pause and take a deep breath while you remind yourself that the emotions you are feeling may not fit the situation. Say to yourself, “Let’s not jump in here until I make sure I understand what he/she meant.”
Let the other person know that you need more clarification. Start with something like: “It sounds like you are saying…” or “I wasn’t sure what you meant but it sounded like…” Or, my personal favorite: “I just want to make sure I understand what you said.” This signals to the other person that you aren’t doubting or attacking them, but that you aren’t sure if you are understanding them. This means taking responsibility for your own interpretation of what you heard, and not accusing the other person of wrongdoing.
Summarize what you think you heard. Repeat back the gist of what your loved one just said. Not word for word, but the overall content, maybe with some of the key words that you most remember. Some examples: “You want to show that you care about me but you don’t want me to think you’re trying to run my life” or “You heard me talking about bringing something home for dinner and you thought I was talking about tonight.”
Watch your tone. This is not an accusation. It is only a summary of what you think you heard. Use a tentative, “up talk” tone—instead of sounding like you are making a declaration—to emphasize your intention to get a better understanding.
End with a check in. Something as simple as “Is this what you were thinking?” or “Is this what you mean?”
And then be open to listening to the response. Keep in mind that you may need to do a couple of rounds of paraphrasing—listening and clarifying—before you are confident that you understand each other. So repeat as needed.
Have some fun with this. Sure, this may not be the way you normally communicate with each other. But your “normal” communication may also be leading to unnecessary misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge that “this might be a time for some paraphrasing. Are you ready?” Injecting some humor can go a long way toward keeping the discussion positive and avoiding tension.
Getting clarification doesn’t mean that somebody can’t communicate or listen effectively. It’s all about making sure everybody stays on the same page.
So give it a try. Listen. Repeat. Clarify. Listen. And react when everybody is clear on the message. That’s teamwork!