The Quiet Coach – 17

September 5, 2023

The value of paraphrasing

A large part of the process of learning to be a coach is to let go of advocacy and stay in the space of inquiry. As a consequence however, we could end up becoming over-reliant on questions and miss out on the transformative effect that paraphrasing can have on a conversation.

What could be holding coaches back from using paraphrasing more liberally in conversations?

  • We use paraphrasing more for us than for the client so there’s a lot of “let me see if I have understood you” stuff going on. This could result in some coaches feeling embarrassed that they are taking up client time to confirm their understanding
  • We don’t see the point of it – after all, the client knows that they just said, didn’t they? How would it help them to hear it repeated?
  • It could feel like we’re staying in the same place when we paraphrase whereas powerful questions are moving the client forward

All of these are myths because paraphrasing has so many benefits.

  • Think of the last time you were thinking through a really knotty question. It’s quite likely that you had multiple thoughts on the issue, sometimes contradictory and to hear all those reflected back, clearly and succinctly can give us clarity. You can actually see a client sit back in their chair and relax as they see that there is a way to structure all their overlapping thoughts.
  • Many times hearing our thinking played back to us can cause us to see the pressures we’re putting on ourselves in a more realistic way, the way someone who is not so mired would see it.  For example, a client was struggling with communicating a tough decision; however she did it, someone would end up getting hurt. My paraphrase to her was “So it sounds like you want this tough decision to be implemented but absolutely no one should be negatively affected by it?” She chuckled because she could see how she was setting herself up for an unattainable goal.
  • Paraphrasing can do a lot to build trust – when the client feels that the coach is not just listening to their words but truly understanding their needs and challenges, even when not completely articulated. To feel seen, acknowledged and accepted – that is one of the greatest gifts we can give our clients.
  • And on a rare occasion, paraphrasing can help a client transform their own view of their situation; where the coach plays back a reality for the client that they have not yet acknowledged for themselves. This involves both listening for what is not being said and putting together all that you have learnt about the client over a period of time.

For example, I was working with a client who was struggling with procrastination for a very long time. He’d get his tasks done but the process was that he would need to sit with his thoughts for a long time and then suddenly, often just before the deadline, it would all come together. While he got his work done to high standards, there was a lot of self-flagellation for not being able to work as easily and effortlessly as others. My paraphrase to him one day was “It feels like you have the soul of an artist in the body of an engineer – does that make sense?”. That really resonated with him – he was able to see the time he was spending as part of his process, as unique as he is.

So my strong recommendation would be to use paraphrasing a lot more in your conversations. Just be careful not to

  • Just repeat what the person has said in their own words – may demonstrate that you have heard them but not that you have comprehended the said and unsaid meanings of the words they’ve used.
  • Keep paraphrasing every single statement the client makes – that can also get frustrating

What you should aim to do

  • Own your paraphrase as your understanding and not absolute reality – prefacing your sharing with statements like “it seems to me that..” or the therapist favourite “I’m wondering if….” allows for the client to disagree
  • Be really careful to use only neutral language in your paraphrasing so that the client does not feel judged
  • Make sure you are reflecting back at the same intensity level as the client. So if the client says ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed”, don’t say “I hear you saying you’re feeling a tad bit anxious”. And if the client says “I’m wondering what to do”, don’t say “I hear you’re horribly stuck”. Ok, I know none of you will – this is me entertaining myself on a Friday evening.

One last point – paraphrasing is a skill that is easily built because you don’t need to wait for a coaching conversation to experiment with. Try it with conversations you have at work; with your friends and your family and let me know what difference it made.

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