The Power of Paraphrasing

By Luke Wiesner, Mediation Program Manager

Think back to a recent conflict you experienced.  What did it feel like physically?  How about emotionally?  Cognitively?  You may recall feeling tense or having difficulty focusing your thoughts.  Engaging in conflict can launch us into survival mode (Fight-Flight-Freeze), which sends neurochemicals and hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into our system.  Cortisol promotes communication with our limbic system (our emotional brain) and inhibits communication with our prefrontal cortex (our rational brain).  Before we can engage in a productive conflict conversation, we need to de-escalate and reclaim communication with our prefrontal cortex. 

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Whether we are in a conflict with someone else and need to de-escalate a situation we are in, or we need to de-escalate a friend, family member, or co-worker, we all have the power to help de-escalate others through active listening.  Paraphrasing is a core principle in active listening and a skill that is essential to managing conflict. 

There are two key components of paraphrasing:  summarizing key facts and reflecting emotions.

1.      Summarizing Key Facts

Summarizing may seem like a trivial tool to use, however summarizing is the foundation of being a sounding board for someone dealing with a conflict.  Summarizing key facts, ideas, and thoughts without inserting your own assumptions and judgement can help the other person organize their thoughts.  This can lead to a better understanding of the situation and empowers others to find the best way forward. 

If you are hesitant to summarize because you don’t agree with the other person, consider that it is ok to disagree with the facts and still summarize their memory of what happened.  In fact, this can be a valuable way for you to identify the disagreements or points of confusion.

2.      Reflecting Emotions

Remember, it is typical for people to jump to survival mode in conflict situations.  Oxytocin is one of the quickest ways for someone to de-escalate and remove the cortisol from their system.  Oxytocin is commonly known as “the love hormone” because it is what we produce when we are in love.  However, oxytocin is also produced when we have meaningful interactions with someone else.  By reflecting someone’s emotions, we can create an interaction and experience that produces oxytocin, both for them and for us. 

Many of the friends, family, and co-workers that we lean on for support often take our side, search for the silver lining, or try to solve our problems.  You may have heard phrases like “That’s too bad,” “Well, on the bright side . . . ,” or “You should . . .” These strategies are intended to be supportive, however typically they justify the escalation or increase the escalation.  By summarizing key facts and reflecting emotions, we are de-escalating the other person, empowering them to act, and supporting them more effectively.

It is also OK to acknowledge the emotions of the other person even if you disagree.  Validating is not agreeing, it is acknowledging, and acknowledgment promotes healthy, respectful, and future-focused conflict conversations.

Practical advice:

·         Try saying, “I hear you saying…” or “It sounds like…” when practicing paraphrasing.  Using these openings makes it easier to summarize and reflect, because it is what you naturally want to do after saying these openings.

·         Learning new communication tools takes practice.  Try to find at least one opportunity every day to summarize what someone said or reflect their emotions in non-conflict situations to develop this practice.  It will make it easier to draw upon these tools when you are in a conflict.

For more information on paraphrasing, listen to an interview with Luke on the podcast Overthinking Conflict.