As my clients, trainees and readers know, paraphrasing is one of the workhorses of my communication and consensus building tool kit. Restating another person’s words in different terms proves that you listened to him and got the point. This, in turn, makes him more likely to settle down and listen to you. When you can correctly paraphrase his ideas, he is also more likely to consider you intelligent, and therefore, more worth listening to.

Of course, the most obvious virtue of paraphrasing is that it prevents misunderstandings. When we act on what we think someone said, but our interpretation isn’t what they meant, we can waste time regrouping and starting over when we discover the communication disconnect. Worse, if we don’t discover that disconnect, we can scuttle a conversation, project, or whatever else the person was talking about. And, of course, misunderstandings can lead to hurt feelings, anger and conflicts that need not have been.

But what do we do when we want to be sure the other person understands us? If I say, “Please restate what I said so I can be sure you understood me,” the other person will, quite justifiably, feel insulted. This can do as much harm as the misunderstanding itself. It violates my “Silver Rule of Consensus”[1] by implicitly making the other person wrong.

Here are some more tactful ways you can elicit paraphrasing to ensure that you are correctly understood:

  1. Paraphrase your own statements. If you express an important concept several ways, you stand a better chance the other person got the message.
  2. If the other person reacts to a statement in a way that doesn’t seem to make sense, for example, if she seems offended or angered by your “inoffensive” statement, make your best guess as to why. Perhaps you just mentioned how busy you are, and she bristled. You can say, “You seem offended (or angry). Did you think I meant I couldn’t help with the project?”
  3. If the other person seems offended, but you don’t have a clue why, you can say something like, “Perhaps I didn’t express myself as well as I would have liked. What did you understand by my statement?” or “I sense that you feel offended, but am not sure why. What did my words mean to you?”

As to option 3, notice that, by prefacing your question with, “Perhaps I didn’t express myself as well as I would have liked,” you show that you don’t assume she made the mistake, thus taking away the wrong making. This phrase also implies your good intentions.

The alternative lead-in phrase, “I sense that you’re offended,” implies that you meant no offense, and you can boost this effect by adding, “I certainly didn’t mean to offend you.” Then ask for the paraphrase.

Always remember, the easiest “conflict” to resolve is one that is based on a difference of interpretation of words, rather than a true difference of opinion, provided that you discover the difference of interpretation. Paraphrasing and eliciting paraphrases from the other person are the keys to that discovery.