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.

Communication is two-way. And it requires that both parties be able not only to listen, but to actually hear what’s being said, as well as clearly convey what they want to express. That sounds great on paper. But the parties involved here are human, and communication breakdowns can occur in spite of the best of intentions.

Use the paraphrase technique

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.” Using the paraphrase technique with your doctor is a way for you to test your understanding of what your doctor said and to get clarification before you leave the office. Paraphrasing is a great way to make sure you and your doctor are in sync and that what he/she wants you to know is indeed being received on your end. Paraphrasing enhances communication, and effective communication builds relationships.

Here’s how to use the paraphrase technique to improve your communication with your doctor:

Let your doctor know you need some clarification. Say something like, “I just want to make sure I understand what you are saying/recommending,” or “I wasn’t sure what you meant but it sounded like…” This signals to your doctor that you value his/her words and want to make sure you have complete understanding.

Restate what you think you heard. Repeat back the gist of what your doctor just said. Again, not word for word, but the key points. An example: “It sounds like you are thinking of changing my medication pretty soon,” or “What I heard is that you think I am doing well but there is something else you want to start monitoring.” If the doctor has said anything that you are unclear about, let him/her know you need more clarification.

Follow your paraphrase with a check-in. Make sure you heard what your doctor intended, and give him/her a chance to clarify further. It’s as simple as: “Is that what you meant?” or “Am I understanding you correctly?”

You may need to repeat this process. For example, if you and your doctor aren’t quite in sync, he/she may need to give you further explanation and you may, in turn, need to do some more paraphrasing. “Now I think I understand. But I just want to make sure. So you’re saying…” It can’t hurt to cross every "t" and dot every "i." After all, this is your health we are talking about.

Make sure you clarify next steps. What, when, why, how. Give your doctor a quick overall summary of the conversation with a focus on what comes next. If you and your doctor can commit to a time frame for any next steps, then so much the better.

Consider taking a pad and pen to your appointment. This will help you keep track of what your doctor is saying and help you avoid getting distracted. You can quickly review your notes at the end of the session. If nothing else, write down your doctor’s recommendations and quickly review them together.

Don't be afraid to speak up

The paraphrase technique may seem a little uncomfortable if you are used to listening while your doctor does all of the talking. But look at it this way: by getting clarification before you leave, you are actually saving time, for you and for your doctor. You’re avoiding the second-guessing and confusion that leads to unnecessary follow-up appointments, as well as follow-up phone conversations (and phone tag) or email.

And the benefits? Less chance of misunderstanding that can lead to error. Less stress. More efficient use of your time. More efficient use of your doctor’s time. And who knows? Your doctor might even appreciate that you helped him/her not to leave any loose ends behind.

Listen. Paraphrase. Check in. Repeat the process as needed. Partnering with your doctor means making sure you are talking on the same wavelength. That’s where paraphrasing helps. So give it a try the next time you meet with your doctor!