Summarizing is a good listener’s superpower

Summarizing can refer to many things, such as summarizing your own message, summarizing a large amount of material, or listing all your recent transactions on a bank statement. In this context, however, we are talking about listening, and how summarizing can be used as part of active listening.

Simply put, summarizing is repeating the other person’s narrative to them briefly and in your own words. It sounds easy, and in a way, it is. However, let’s delve a bit deeper into why, how, and for what purpose summarizing is used.

Why is it a good idea to summarize?

Whatever our goal is in a conversation, the more skilfully we listen, the more likely we are to achieve it.

  • Do you want the other person to listen to your perspective?
    • Create a sense that you understand their perspective first, and they will be more willing to listen to yours.
  • Do you want to understand why the other person is so unreasonable?
    • Active listening helps you unearth the underlying and actual reasons.
  • Do you want to be heard?
    • The other person has much more bandwidth to listen to you after they’ve been heard.
  • Do you want to negotiate some kind of agreement?
    • By listening first to what the other person has in mind, you’ll find the best arguments.
  • Do you want to reduce resistance to change?
    • Resistance eases almost automatically when people first have the space to openly disagree and to be understood.

The more effectively we listen, and especially hear, the other side, the more likely we are to achieve our goals. It’s not enough to merely hear the other party; the other party should also feel heard. When the other person genuinely feels that we have heard and understood their point as they meant it, they are ready to engage in a discussion, listen to other perspectives, and receive information.

Summarizing is an extremely effective tool to create the experience of being heard.

How does summarizing work?

Summarizing begins with listening, of course. Either we have asked a question, or the other person is otherwise telling their story. When the other person reaches a break in their narration, it’s time to summarize. You can start summarizing like this, for example:

  • “Hey, is it okay if I check what I heard? You said that…”
  • “If I briefly summarize your point so far, was it that…”
  • “Did I understand correctly that…”

If the other person talks for a long time, and shows no signs of pausing anytime soon, you can also tentatively interrupt:

  • “Wait, before you tell more, can I check that I have understood so far? You said that…”
  • “Hang on, I’d like to summarize that I heard you right. So…”

Summarizing has three central components: we summarize the other person’s narrative, choose the main points, and rephrase them in our own words. All three components have an important purpose.

Summarize the other person’s narrative

We have many bad habits related to listening. We listen to respond, listen to advise, listen to disagree, and listen to find evidence for our own view. Even when summarizing, these bad habits may try to take over. Therefore, we need to focus solely on summarizing the other person’s narrative.

We may easily try to slip in our own views, additions, and interpretations. This is not summarizing. When summarizing, we stick strictly to only those things that the other person has just told us. No matter how tempting, we don’t steer the conversation in any direction. This is crucial so that the person talking feels they can trust us and that they’re truly being heard.

Choose the main points

Choosing the main points has two purposes.

First off, it wouldn’t be a summary if we repeated everything the other person said. That would be laborious and also not effective, as we say many unnecessary things when speaking. Picking out the main points helps us stay focused and move the conversation forward more efficiently.

Secondly, choosing the main points also clarifies whether we agree on what is most important right now. If we don’t choose the points the other person would have considered most important, they usually correct us. The other person will re-emphasize the things that they think are more important. This is useful information.

Use your own words

Using our own words serves two purposes as well.

On one hand, using our own words prevents the parrot effect, where we mechanically repeat what we heard. Some people are very good at not listening and still parroting the other person’s words from short-term memory. In that case, the message has not been genuinely processed; it has only been cached.

On the other hand, using our own words also helps ensure that we have understood correctly. Synonyms reveal if we have drifted too far from the original meaning. Then the speaker can correct us and bring us back on track.

Finally, you can often ask a check-up question, such as:

  • “Was this what you wanted me to hear?”
  • “Did I miss something important?”
  • “Did I hear you correctly?”

Or you can just stay silent and wait for the other person’s reaction and response.

For what purpose is summarizing used?

The purpose of summarizing is simply to ensure that we heard the other person’s message as they meant it and that they feel heard. This tool can be used in any conversation, and many people use it quite naturally already. Summarizing is hardly ever harmful, at the very least.

However, summarizing is particularly beneficial in situations where emotions are running high, there is disagreement, or misunderstandings occur frequently for whatever reason. In negotiations and mediations, summarizing is an often used tool. The more sensitive the subject, the more crucial it is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying, without interpretations and misunderstandings.

Summarizing is easy to try out and practice. When you use it often enough, it becomes a completely natural part of your listening skills, and you no longer need to pay as much attention to using it. Summarizing also works in text-based communications, although it is used much less frequently there.

Summarizing is a professional skill – whether it’s summarizing your own message, summarizing a large amount of material, or summarizing another person’s narrative while listening.

TL;DR Summarizing is feeding the other person back their story briefly and in your own words

  • The better listeners we are, the more likely we are to reach our goal in a conversation.
  • When the other person truly feels that we have heard and understood their point, they are ready to engage in a discussion, to listen to other points of view and to receive information.
  • Summarizing begins with listening. Summarizing itself has three main components: summarising the other person’s narrative, choosing the main points and repeating them in our own words
  • The goal of summarizing is to ensure that we heard what the other person meant and that they feel listened to.
  • When you practice summarizing enough, it becomes a totally natural part of your listening skills.

Or what do you think?

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