You might imagine that, when I teach a 1.5 hour mini-workshop on persuasion, I would cover the most basic element of my persuasion/consensus building system–uncovering and talking about what’s behind the things people say they want, their ultimate interests. But we require more than 1.5 hr. to assimilate that skill, take it away and use it to best advantage. We need more explanation, more examples, and very importantly, more practice exercises.

So for a short persuasion workshop, I focus on one of the persuasion skills I personally use most, such as paraphrasing. Trainees can learn enough from a short session to practice paraphrasing on their own.

Here’s a short version of what Bridges to Consensus tells us about paraphrasing:

To paraphrase, re-state the other person’s remark in different words

The most obvious use of paraphrasing is to verify your understanding of another’s statement before you decide how to respond… I once heard a talk show host describe a situation in which a woman buys a new outfit for an important event and models it for a friend. The friend says, “That outfit is all wrong for you.” The talk show guests argued hammer and tongs about whether the friend had been unkind or helpful. I could see that the “helpful” proponents took the friend’s statement to mean that the outfit was inappropriate for the occasion, while most of the “unkind” proponents understood that it was unattractive.

Such misunderstandings can stem from different understandings of words per se, as in the example “all wrong for you.” They can also arise from the fact that people don’t always take in every word we say. Qualifiers like “sometimes,” or “it’s possible that,” or in the talk show example, “for you,” might not register…

Because the very nature of the problem lies in different understandings of a given series of words, paraphrasing requires that we use different words to restate the other person’s point. Say the lady in the talk show scenario thinks her friend finds her outfit unattractive, but the friend meant that it wouldn’t suit the occasion. The lady wants to be sure she understood correctly before expressing hurt feelings. If she says, “Are you saying this outfit is all wrong for me?” she won’t discover the disconnect. She repeated the same words that meant different things to her and her friend. However, “Are you saying the color makes me look washed out?” might do the trick. So might, “You mean it’s unsuitable for the occasion?”

Bridges to Consensus follows with a detailed discussion of various uses of paraphrasing, situations in which paraphrasing would help you–too many situations to include in one blog post. So here’s the virtue of paraphrasing that’s most appealing to most people:

In addition, correctly paraphrasing is the best way for you to get heard. When someone repeats the same point for the fourth time, that usually means she feels you didn’t get the point the first three times. Starting right in to argue your counterpoint reinforces her feeling. If you only understood her, she feels, you’d see it her way. So what does she do? While you present your flawless counterargument, she tunes you out and devises a better way to phrase her original point. Or worse, she doesn’t even wait for you to finish that flawless argument. She interrupts and shouts you down.

Accurately paraphrasing proves you got another person’s point, eliminating her urge to devise a better way to convince you. Now she’s ready to listen. The candy flower on the icing of this cake is that, when you prove you understand others, you come across as intelligent, and therefore, even more worth listening to.

You try it

This week, practice paraphrasing, but don’t start with difficult situations like major disagreements. As in learning to drive, don’t start on the freeway. Start in an empty parking lot. Plan for a time when you will have a casual, relaxed atmosphere, such as lunch with a coworker or friend. Don’t think of trying to persuade him of anything. Plan to paraphrase at least three innocuous statements statements. For example:

  • He says, “I had a tough time with my class yesterday. One of the kids burped. Then one after another after another burped.” You say, “Copycat burping!”
  • H says, “Let’s not go for TexMex today. I just had spaghetti last night.” You say, “So you’d like something lighter, right?”
  • He says, “I should have known better than to buy plums in winter.” You say, “They’re just not that good when they have to travel from the southern hemisphere, are they?”

Practicing on innocuous statements is not just practice. It yields its own benefits. You’ll notice that your companion warms up to you more than usual. He might seem more relaxed. You enjoy each other’s company more. So you build a relationship while practicing a skill that will, later, come more naturally when you do wish to persuade someone.