By Elizabeth Gory

Rephrasing is a skill applicable to every conversation you’ll ever have. When you rephrase, you play back for your audience what was said in a way that makes participants feel validated and moves the conversation forward. This can be done either by paraphrasing what was said or restating it word for word. Either way, when done effectively, rephrasing encourages those you’re in conversation with to feel heard. This generates goodwill that boosts trust, opens communication channels, and allows for a more productive discussion. 

The benefits of rephrasing
Though fostering goodwill may be the most important product of rephrasing, it’s far from the only benefit. In any conversation, rephrasing:

  • Enables you to clarify ideas: When you rephrase someone’s words, you invite them to agree with or clarify what you’ve said, ensuring that an understanding is established before moving on.  
  • Helps you formulate your response: As you rephrase, you’ll give yourself extra time to consider your ideas and how you wish to reply.  
  • Advances the conversation: It’s easy for a discussion to get bogged down in repetition or excess explanation. Rephrasing someone’s idea demonstrates that they’ve been understood and can continue to their next point.  
  • Steers the discussion: Rephrasing allows you to highlight the ideas that most interest you and guide the conversation toward your goals.

Rephrasing can be especially advantageous during the facilitation of a large group discussion when it also:

  • Promotes cohesion: Rephrasing a participant’s question or comment ensures everyone in the group has heard it. This better enables every member of the group to stay focused on the conversation, understand the context for your feedback, and participate in the discussion. 
  • Energizes the room: As you rephrase, your tone and body language can demonstrate your interest in what was asked or said. Your energy can set an example that encourages engagement and enthusiasm throughout the group.
  • Gives you greater control: Through rephrasing, you’re better able to manage the flow of conversation, reining it in or sparking additional dissection as needed.
  • Neutralizes negativity: Along with energizing participants, rephrasing can help you to channel the discussion on a positive track and mitigate the negativity that can arise from participant cross-talk.

6 tips to enhance your rephrasing
Rephrasing is a skill that’s easy to grasp but can be challenging to leverage effectively. The fact is, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s a skill you’ll learn by doing and refine over time. That said, there are some best practices that can point you in the right direction, especially when you’re first putting this skill into action. Consider the following: 

  1. Be conversational.
    You’ve probably interacted at some point with an automated phone operator that, technically, rephrased your request (I heard you say returns department, is this correct?). Aggravating, right? When you rephrase, keep your tone conversational and interactive. Integrating your rephrasing seamlessly into the discussion will advance the conversation instead of bringing it to an awkward halt. 
  2. Stay conscious of your tone. 
    As you rephrase, strive to be confident and, most importantly, nonjudgmental. A positive tone can encourage all participants to engage in the conversation, while a negative tone, even when focused on a disruptive individual, can discourage participation from everyone. 
  3. Consider pairing your rephrase with follow-up questions.
    Questions that invite further insight—either from the initial speaker or, when applicable, others in the group—encourage participation and drive the conversation forward. For example, if you were rephrasing a comment about a recent setback, you might ask:

    “Who here has faced the same challenge?” 
    “What other challenges have some of you faced?”
  4. Rephrase a long talker to redirect the conversation.
    A single participant can sometimes monopolize a large group conversation. In such cases, it can be effective to start talking over the participant while rephrasing what they have said. They will feel heard, rather than interrupted. Follow up by prompting them for their question, asking a question of someone else, or continuing with your presentation.
  5. Use rephrasing during small group activities to build cohesion and increase engagement.
    When facilitating breakouts, role-plays, or other small group activities, circulate between groups and listen for participants’ ideas and insights you can later share with the entire group. Rephrasing what you heard will help participants feel validated even as it solidifies key learnings and boosts further engagement. Follow it up by calling on that participant to share more.  
  6. Close a group session by building upon key learnings you rephrase. 
    It’s a good practice to close a session by inviting participants to share key learnings. As you rephrase the audience’s feedback, look for opportunities to refine and add to what you hear in order to solidify participant learning. For example, if someone said, “I gained insight into the importance of sharing adverse events,” you might expand on this learning as you rephrase: “Sharing adverse events is important for many reasons. Along with being required to do so, informing doctors of potential adverse events may help them to strategize about how to manage them with their patients.”

The importance of practice
Under low-stake conditions, it might be easy to listen closely, rephrase accurately, remain nonjudgmental, and enthusiastically drive the conversation forward. This becomes much more difficult, however, in the midst of a high-pressure presentation or emotionally charged conversation. 

To prepare for those situations when rephrasing can matter most, take every opportunity to practice this skill. Rephrase what your friends say, what your partner says, what your children say. Keep in mind that this is a new skill. Like learning to drive a stick shift, rephrasing might feel a little rocky in the beginning, but it will get easier. With practice, rephrasing—and all its benefits—will become a natural part of your communication style. 

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Elizabeth Gory is a training professional who has worked with Fortune 500 clients worldwide. For over 20 years, she has been coaching clients to present and facilitate with confidence. She delivers in-person and web-based training on corporate communication skills, management and leadership, and IT. Elizabeth also acts as a consultant trainer and instructional designer for several training companies. When not training, she can be found moderating and facilitating meetings, spending time with her family, and enjoying time with horses. Connect with Elizabeth on LinkedIn

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