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Effective Listening: Show You Understand

A good listener will have appropriate body language: that’s an essential. But a good listener is not totally silent. A good listener will pay attention to what the other person is saying, and show that they understand.

So how do you show that you really do understand what the other person is saying? A simple repetition like ‘mmmm’, I know, or ‘me too’ is not enough – even a parrot can learn to hold up that style of conversation!

There is a simple approach to demonstrating that you understand the essence of what the other person is saying. It’s called paraphrasing. Basically, you give a very brief summary of what the other person has been saying, but in your own words.

Just repeating what the other person said is not paraphrasing, it’s parroting, and that doesn’t communicate that you’ve understood what was said. By paraphrasing the other person’s communication into your own words, you’re showing that you have truly heard what they said. Or, if you get it wrong, it gives the other person a chance to put you straight!

Helping professionals have a simple ‘beginners formula’ for paraphrasing. The formula is a reminder to pay attention to what the speaker’s body language is saying about how they feel, as well as to their words. The formula is:

“You feel…

This formula is a simple way to start to learn effective paraphrasing. Try it with your young children:

“You feel angry because your brother keeps changing the channel when you’re trying to watch your favorite program”


“You feel anxious because there’s a math test tomorrow, and you haven’t been doing your math homework”

Once you’ve had a bit of practice with the beginners formula, you can mix it up a bit, so that it doesn’t sound like a formula any more, but covers the same ground.

The most amazing thing about paraphrasing is that sometimes, nothing more is needed to help the other person to feel better, or solve their problem! This is because paraphrasing acts like a mirror for the other person, helping them to see things from a different angle. Just as a mirror will help you to fix your hair, another person’s good paraphrasing of what you’re saying will help you to see your problem more clearly, and maybe resolve it.

Paraphrasing is the foundational helping skill: some psychologists have based their entire treatment approach on paraphrasing (e.g. Rogerian counseling), and it is an essential skill for all helping professionals. When you master paraphrasing, you will truly be an effective listener.

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