Summarizing in Effective Communication

I find it interesting that when we really need to be sure we have heard someone after asking them a question we will almost always do a summary back of what they’ve said. Various radio communications used by the Police, the Military, Air Traffic control, all use summaries or repetitions back to the sender from the listener.

But so often it is missing in our normal communication with others, and for many people a summary feels quite ‘awkward’ as if they think it makes them look stupid or as if they haven’t listened – instead of thinking it shows they care, and are concerned that they are listening effectively.

Summarizing is an essential skill used in the practice of Mediation and I would say that it is an enormous contributor to the effectiveness of any communication that we have, whether in the role of a Mediator or not.

The Principles of Effective Communication and the Underlying Philosophies of Mediation described on the Communication and Conflict website (see below) inform how an effective summary can be given.

For example, it needs to ensure that ownership of what is said remains with the speaker. So for example, a summary in the listener’s own words does not promote effective listening and serves no real purpose as it is not a summary of what was said but a re-interpretation by the listener of what was said.

This is likely to mean the speaker has to restate something or elaborate on it to try to bring the wording back to how they want it to be expressed. Summaries can often be at risk of disempowering the communication of another when it uses the listener’s words and not the speaker’s. Ownership of what is said is taken from the speaker. This is a common practice amongst many Helping Professionals, leading to disaffection and a sense of disempowerment amongst their clients.

Unfortunately, some communication skills training even encourages the use of summaries in the listener’s own words. This inhibits effective communication as it adds an additional burden for the speaker to have to deal with this reinterpretation rather than to simply express themselves and be listened to.

This may be fine in an unimportant conversation – in fact none of the Principles are important in a ‘small talk’ kind of conversation where it doesn’t really matter what is or isn’t communicated. I am not suggesting that all conversations should include a summary.

But where it is important, for example in gaining information from someone (as in the request for directions above) or in a situation of personal importance to the speaker (and on a daily basis we are engaged in many such situations), then effective summarizing is important, if the speaker is to feel what they say is valued. Or, at least, that their attempt to communicate their thoughts and feelings has been successful.

But actually, summarizing is rarely used in day to day conversations. Often a conversation ends with the people involved having very different views of what was said.

A summary maximizes the effectiveness of the communication that occurs through a checking with the speaker whether the summary is an accurate statement of what was said.

The summary is not a ‘statement of fact’ about what was said, it is an opportunity to clarify with the speaker that the thoughts and feelings and viewpoints they have expressed have been heard accurately. Through the use of a summary the speaker and listener can co-operatively maximize the effectiveness of their communication

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