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Understanding Empathic Paraphrase: Business Communication

Apr 20, 2008
How do you prove to a speaker that you are really listening to what they are saying?

When we speak with someone, the actual words we choose convey part of the meaning, but only part. Much of the meaning is conveyed by tone of voice and physical expression -- especially the nuances of sarcasm, excitement or humor. Make sure that your tone of voice and body language demonstrate a complete understanding of the nuance of the speaker's tone of voice.

Measures of Empathic Paraphrase

Your empathic paraphrase is fully interchangeable when the speaker feels you have captured his thoughts and sentiments exactly. It often coincides with an excited burst of energy or an enthusiastic, "Yes!"


The most common way in which your paraphrase will be inaccurate: all the speaker's key ideas are not captured. That is, the paraphrase has subtracted some of what was said. The speaker says, "I am concerned about A, B & C." The paraphraser says, "You are concerned about A & B."


The next most likely way in which your paraphrase will be inaccurate: we hear what we want to hear and focus on our own ideas. We then add statements that the speaker did not make. The speaker: "I am concerned about A, B & C." The paraphraser says, "You are concerned about A, B, C, L, & R."


Instead of paraphrasing what was said you offer your interpretation of what you believe the speaker meant to say. You hear A, B & C and say "I have the impression that what you are really talking about is G."

Interpretive Paraphrase

Interpretive paraphrasing is a double-edged sword. Interpreting the speaker too soon often causes her to think you are not listening, you are more enamored with your own theories, rather than the thoughts of the speaker.

First, understand the other's needs and perspective. Not only does this validate your business associate or customer and build trust, but allows you to better align your ideas, solutions or products with their needs or values. The result: deeper satisfaction with the interaction, an improved relationship and an increased likelihood of association.

Artful Interruption

As we begin paraphrasing in more depth, we frequently cannot remember everything the speaker has said. The solution is to interrupt the speaker early, before our "buffer" fills up. Speakers do not mind being interrupted if your purpose is solely to paraphrase for understanding. "Excuse me, I want to make sure that I get this right. You believe that...."

How to interrupt artfully:

Use a gesture -- a signal to "hold on" for a moment:
Do the time-out signal with a smile.
Make a sharp cutting gesture.
Raise your hand.
Raise your volume to "top" the speaker.
Give your face an expression of expectancy, excitement, alarm or concern.
Lean in closer, suddenly.
Use a phrase:
"Let me make sure I get this..."
"I want to understand this..."
"So you're saying that..."
"Aah, I think I get it! You..."


Begin sharpening your paraphrasing skills. Practice "parroting" what someone else says: every thought uttered, using as many of their exact words as possible. That is, you will try to repeat exactly what is said. As we move into the full model, you will not be so literal. Instead, you will capture the essence of what is said using the speaker's key words.


Phase 1 of the process occurs when you listen to someone else speak.


Repeat as many of the other person's exact words as possible.


Make sure that you have accurately captured the other's thoughts. Check, "Is that right?" Interpret anything but an unequivocal yes as "no." Try again.

Paraphrase with Empathy

Paraphrase in a way that captures "the essence" of all major points the speaker makes. Use the speaker's key words. (We are all most comfortable with our own words and we know what we mean by them). Work on making sure that your tone of voice, gestures and energy level are commensurate with the speaker's.

When Should I Paraphrase?

To make sure you understand the other party. If there is any doubt about their, meaning, paraphrase. The act of paraphrasing can help you to piece together seemingly disparate chunks of content into a coherent concept. Often the speaker's meaning will only became clear to you when you attempt to paraphrase it.

To prove to the other party that you truly DO understand what they are saying. An interchangeable paraphrase is the only technique we know that will do this.

To build rapport. People enjoy feeling understood.

When the situation is emotionally charged. This helps to defuse conflict. When the other party feels that you have heard and understood them, they tend to feel more calm and open to your point of view.

To listen more closely. When your mind drifts, remind yourself to "get ready to paraphrase." Doing a strong paraphrase is gratifying.

To replay the speaker's message. This is helpful if what they've said makes no sense or seems absurd. Once they hear it, they often rephrase it to a more coherent message.

When you hear emotional language and emotional hot buttons. The speaker mentions these points because they have strong feelings. When you paraphrase interchangeably, the speaker will feel gratified that you "got it."

For example:

We are excited about...
We struggle with...
I've been a loyal customer for 5 years and now you...
I put my butt on the line and now ...

Empathic Tone

People fail to give enough weight to the "empathic" aspect of empathic paraphrasing. An empathic paraphrase is characterized by "empathy;" that is the ability to understand another's situation, feelings and emotions. Many of us begin by remembering what the other said, but are unable to capture the speaker's emotional tonality. Empathy supports our ability to connect with another person and to respond in a way that builds deeper relationships.

If you restate the speaker's words in a dispassionate and detached tonality, you have not empathically paraphrased. Listen to the speaker's emotions, sentiments and desires, then pitch your voice and use your face and gesture in a manner that reflects understanding of the speaker's emotive state.

If another person is very excited, showing your own excitement as you paraphrase is appropriate. However, in other situations, you can get into trouble by merely mirroring the speaker's emotion. If someone is expressing fear or anger, echoing these sentiments will only heighten unpleasant feelings. Instead, perhaps softening your voice to a gentle tone that reflects back confident calm, will support them with reassurance.

If they are expressing intense anger, paraphrasing with intense concern or regret will reassure them that you understand how strongly they feel.


Practice the technique at work with colleagues, in social situations, or at home with family. Notice how people tend to respond when they feel that you are really listening and understanding them.

These techniques have made our interactions more fruitful and smoothed challenging customer exchanges. Give it a try.
About the Author
The Henderson Group trains and coaches business professionals in the art of communication and presentation through our experiential methodology. Since 1990, The Henderson Group has helped Fortune 500 companies worldwide improve employee productivity and business results through the development of communication skills. You can find us online at SpeakFearlessly.net and HendersonGroup.com or Attend A Workshop
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