What do you do when someone just won’t listen? He says something you disagree with, and no matter how you try to explain another point of view, he keeps reiterating his original idea as if he didn’t even hear what you said. In these cases, paraphrasing his words can work magic.
To paraphrase, simply restate the other person’s point in different words, then, ask if you got it right. People often repeat themselves because, when you disagree with them, they feel you didn’t get their point. As soon as they realize that your reply is moving in a different direction, they tune you out and turn their minds (and mouths) to making you understand.
When you paraphrase another person’s ideas, then, ask if you got it right, he may correct you or elaborate. That’s good. It saves you from trying to address the wrong idea or an incomplete idea. So you paraphrase again till he agrees that you’ve got it. Now you’ve proved to him that you fully understood, even if you didn’t agree. You’ve taken away the temptation for him to tune out and redouble his efforts to get through to you. Now is the time when he’s most likely to listen.
Be sure to use different words. If you simply parrot his words, you don’t prove you understood, and he might even think you are mocking or dismissing him.
Let’s look at an example. Beth tells you, “I don’t appreciate that nasty look you gave me at the meeting yesterday.”
You reply, “It wasn’t about you. I was—“
Beth interrupts, “It was ugly. And we were in a meeting.”
When Beth interrupts and repeats herself, that’s your clue that she needs to feel heard before she can listen. You think about her words, then try this paraphrase, “It sounds like you felt that others at the meeting would judge you because of the look on my face. Is that right?”
Beth: “Well, yeah. You were looking right at me.” She has let go of part of her repetition, the part about being at a meeting. You’re making progress, even though she is still repeating herself about the look.
You paraphrase about the look. “And you felt that that look on my face expressed disapproval of you, correct?”
Beth corrects you. “More like suspicion.”
You paraphrase again. “Or distrust?”
Although you don’t have to agree with what you paraphrase, you can calm people down when you can find something to agree with. So you say, “If I felt someone looked at me with suspicion, I wouldn’t like it either.”
Beth: “So why did you do it?” More progress. Beth has stopped repeating herself and has asked you a question. She’s now ready to hear your answer.
You: “Actually, I thought Charles’s criticism of your part of the project might be untrue and unfair. I guess my suspicion was about what he said, but I was looking at you because Charles had directed my attention your way and also because I was looking for your reaction.”
“Well, I think it made the others think you agreed with Charles.” Beth is still complaining, but you continue to make progress because she is now actually listening and responding to your statements.
You: “It might have, and I’m going to correct that impression by expressing support for your part of the project to those people.”
So your resolution for this month is: once a day, choose a statement someone else has made and, even if you think you know how to respond, take the time to paraphrase first.
The statement doesn’t have to be difficult or controversial. For example:
Him: I’m tired of eating in the company cafeteria.
You: You’d like more variety, huh?
Him: You bet.
Later, when you feel frustrated because someone just won’t listen, and counterarguments are hammering on the roof of your mouth trying to escape, this counterintuitive technique will come to you more naturally.
And for more uses and benefits of paraphrasing and other forms of “mirroring,” check out Chapter 11 of Bridges to Consensus.