“Is That All You Have To Say?”

Conversations between individuals require skillful listening skills. Closely associated to listening is the essential skill of paraphrasing. Decades ago, the skill of para-phrasing was used in therapy, counseling, and conflict resolution. The skill was a “parroting” of the speaker’s words and was related back to the speaker in ‘I’ statements, such as: “I hear you saying…” or “I feel that you…” This way of paraphrasing never seemed effective in moving a conversation forward because it sounded awk-ward to the receiver and it was more about “I” (the listener) than “you” (the speaker).

When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”

J. Krishnamurti (1969)

Definition of Paraphrasing

Garmston and Costa (2002) refined the art of paraphrasing by studying communication skills, dialogue and conversations over a period of time. They found that paraphrasing was one of the least used communication skills because it requires a commitment to listening more than talking in a conversation. Paraphrasing is defined as rephrasing and rewording of a statement offered by a speaker. It is a restatement of something said using other words to make it shorter and simpler. Paraphrasing is possibly the most powerful of all the nonjudgmental verbal responses because it restates what was said and it communicates to the speaker that “I am listening” and “I am attempting to understand you.”

Paraphrasing is intended to align the people in a conversation and create a safe environment which allows for openness, honesty and expansion of thinking. The purpose of this communication skill is not as much for the listener as it is for the benefit of the speaker because it reflects the feelings and the content back to the speaker for reflection and further thinking. In conversations without paraphrasing, questioning may seem more like interrogation which can hinder the trust factor between the speaker and the listener. Paraphrasing by the listener sends three messages to the speaker: 1) I am listening, 2) I am interested—I care, and 3) I understand you. With paraphrasing being used in conversations, it opens up the dialogue, helps to build trust with the speaker and tends to lead towards possible actions and strategic decisions.

Principles of Paraphrasing

Costa and Garmston (2002), Lipton and Wellman (2001) and others have identified some guiding principles of effective and skillful paraphrasing for consideration.

  1. Fully attend. Be present with the speaker and set aside all distractors that may impede listening. In addition, the listener becomes aware of their tone of voice, gestures and body language.
  2. Use a paraphrase that is shorter than the original statement. Capture the essence of what the speaker said and relate key ideas, themes or generalizations.
  3. Listen to understand. Focus on both the feelings expressed by the speaker and the content. When the speaker acknowledges feelings and emotions in addition to cognition, it does not indicate that the speaker is in agreement, it demonstrates that the speaker is listening and trying to understand.
  4. Paraphrase before questioning. Pause to truly listen first, paraphrase to demonstrate that you are listening, and then probe by posing the “right” question at the right time.
Paraphrasing in a Conversation

Paraphrasing can take various forms with different purposes and functions in a conversation depending on what is being expressed by the speaker. Two commonly used forms of paraphrasing in professional, as well as personal conversations are:

  • Acknowledge and Clarify. This type of paraphrase restates the essence of what was said by the speaker. Examples of starter stems may sound like:
    • “You’re feeling frustrated today…”
    • "You are thinking about…”
    • “You are concerned because…”
    • “You’re wondering if…”
  • Summarize and Organize. This form of paraphrase offers themes, categories and sequential listings to create organization of the ideas presented by the speaker. Examples of starter stems may sound like:
    • “On one hand, you are thinking about… and on the other hand you are wondering about…”
    • “You have indicated a number of big ideas, 1…2…3…”

Using starter stems as indicated, provides opportunities for one to practice effective paraphrasing while keeping the intent of the paraphrase in mind. It also allows the listener to focus on the speaker by using ‘You’ instead of ‘I’ or “I hear you saying” while offering a paraphrase of what was said by the speaker.

Paraphrasing and Coaching

Just recently, the skill of paraphrasing has been introduced in the field of professional coaching, particularly with coaches in education, as a verbal tool for mediating thinking. As the speaker expresses their feelings and content, the coach offers a paraphrase that reflects the speakers thinking. The coach strives to maintain the intent and accurate meaning of the speaker’s ideas using different words. These thoughts are placed in the middle between the coach and the speaker causing one to examine their own words and then reflect on the thoughts and ideas a second time through the paraphrases used by the coach. This construction of a mental and verbal space between the listener and the speaker causes a reshaping and deeper examination of the internal thought processes that may have been previously unexpressed. When paraphrasing is skillfully used and expressed by a coach, it provides internal opportunities for the speaker to examine and reflect on their beliefs, values, goals, and assumptions along with their feelings and ideas. The more skilled a listener becomes at paraphrasing, the greater the possibility for helping others bring clarity and accuracy to their thinking which will provide movement toward decision making and energy for action.

Paraphrasing is an essential communication skill that is necessary for effective professional conversations to promote professional learning, especially in education. It can help to develop and support relationships, increase understanding that will benefit both the speaker and the coach, and provide the mental space for mediating thinking.

A Note on Educational Coaching: The Michigan Department of Education has defined the educational coach as one who is proficient in the Coaching 101 Model which is sponsored by Michigan State University Office of K-12 Outreach. Proficiency is defined as one who is skilled in three domains, Active Listening, Questioning and Relational Trust/Feedback. One aspect of Active Listening is Paraphrasing. Diane Jackson, Ph.D., is Director of Coaching 101, a Michigan State-wide System of Support Coaching Program based in the Office of K-12 Outreach in the College of Education at Michigan State University. She is the Director of the Coaching 101 Core Design Team which consists of Dale Moss, Patricia Rushing, Patricia Vandelinder, and Virginia Winters.  


Click Here for References

Garmston, R. and Costa, A. (2002). Cognitive Coaching, 2nd ed. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Kee, K., Anderson, K., Dearing, V., Harris, E., and Shuster, F (2010). Results Coaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Lipton, L. and Wellman, B. (2012). Got Data? Now What?  Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Danielson, C. (2009). Talk About Teaching!  Thousands Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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