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The Science and Art of Reflecting, Summarizing and Paraphrasing

  August 15, 2022

Reflecting, summarizing and paraphrasing in a coaching conversation are important skills that a coach needs to learn. It’s not just the skill itself that is important, it can often be more about when to do it, and indeed ‘if’ to do it (the art) than what and how to do ‘it’ (the science). What I notice in early day coaches is that this skill is often overused in terms of what is reflected, summarized or paraphrased and is perhaps not always truly in service of the client, as it is used as a learned behavior to demonstrate ‘hearing’.

In this blog I will look at all three of these coaching interventions and explore when the times are that they might be most useful for our clients. In addition, the main competency these three are found in is CC 6 Listens Actively. The definition of which is that the coach: ‘Focuses on what the client is and is not saying to fully understand what is being communicated in the context of the client systems and to support client self-expression’

Let’s take each in turn…

Reflecting

Reflecting in coaching, as the word implies, is the equivalent of holding up a mirror to the client. This allows the client to hear back what they said, and sometimes how they said it. ‘Reflecting back’, could be a whole sentence, some of the words used or even a single word. 

What therefore might the purpose of reflecting? It could be simply to ensure clarity and understanding of what is being said, it could also be used as a form of challenge– again to check for understanding, rather than use a question.

For example, suppose the client says:

“My teammate and manager are fighting. I’m really angry with him”.

For the coach to be in their client’s frame of reference, they may need to know whether ‘him’ refers to the manager or the teammate.  The coach might simply reflect back the word him with an expression of inquiry.

The client might then respond:

“Yeah, my colleague. It puts me in an awkward position that I don’t know how to handle.”

It might also be that a coach reflects words they have heard that seem to have more of an important meaning for the client. The client may repeat a certain word a number of times or place emphasis, and it may be useful to enquire, simply by restating the words as a reflection.

The coach gets clarity and remains in the client’s context & frame of reference without getting too much into, possibly irrelevant, data. The client also gets to hear what they are saying and even how they are saying it, which may give rise to a new insight.

Summarizing

Summarizing is the art of playing back to the client what you have specifically heard, in the clients’ words but in a shortened form.

It's important to summarize only what you've heard, without interpretation, addition or judgement which is why using the client words becomes vital. At the end of a summary, it can be helpful to ask the client if you have heard them correctly. This provides the coach with clarity and the client to be sure they have said what they intended.

Summarizing can be very useful when working with clients to discover and uncover what the work is that needs to be explored in the coaching session. We know clients have sometimes not yet synthesized what they want to work on and playing back in a summary can be helpful, especially when it seems there might be several pieces to look at. Having gained that clarity, it then is helpful to ask a forward-thinking question to initiate the exploration.

Summarizing, using the client’s own words, may also support them to gain an insight which is why a forward-thinking question to follow can be really helpful at this point.

What I notice with newer coaches is that they may play back a summary every time the client pauses and start with ‘what I am hearing is…”. The question that comes to me here is: ‘who is this summary in service of?’ Sometimes, summarising like this is used as a way for the coach to create a pause to think about what to ask next. With clients who are very talkative, this can just mean the client will tell even more of the story, unless a forward-thinking question follows the summary. It is not always necessary to use words like: ‘what I am hearing’. It can simply be a summary.

While summarizing is a useful skill, when overused it can mean that the coach is doing the work for the client, as opposed to the client doing the work. I would offer that, as the coaching session moves nearer the action points, then it is the client who needs to provide the summaries and not the coach. This enables the coach to also understand what is important to the client and what they are taking from the session. If the coach summarizes, for example the action points, it could focus on what the coach thinks the client ‘should’ do rather than hearing what the client actually is going to do or take away. (See CC 8.6 ‘partners with the client to summarize learning and insight…..)

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is the art of reflecting ‘the essence’ of what is being said and is said using the coaches own words and without changing the original source or intention of the clients’ words. Paraphrasing really helps the client know that they have been truly heard.  Summarizing is playing their own words back; paraphrasing is playing back what the coach believes he hears is the meaning of the client’s words in the context of the conversation. It enables the client to potentially know they have been heard and understood. When done well, it enhances empathy and trust. It doesn’t matter if the coach has drawn a different meaning, as the client may realize they haven’t conveyed their thinking sufficiently and can evoke new thoughts, additions or nuances to what they wish to share.

The science and art of Reflection, Summarizing and Paraphrasing is largely found in the competency of Listens Actively (CC6).  Sub-competency 6.2 explicitly talks about ‘Reflects or summarizes what the client communicated to ensure clarity and understanding’.  However, when you look deeper into that Core Competency, 6.3: ‘Recognizes and inquires when there is more to what the client is communicating’ (using paraphrasing perhaps) and 6.5: ‘Integrates the client’s words, tone of voice and body language to determine the full meaning of what is communicated’ (summarizing and reflecting perhaps) you will also see these skills reflected.

These skills can also be found in the other core competencies, and I would offer that it is a skill which, done well, really emphasizes the partnership between coach and client that is so vital to support and facilitate the client’s development and growth.

A couple of question for you to reflect upon…

  • Where are your strengths in the Science and Art of these important coaching skills?
  • Where might you over- or under-do the skill of reflection, summary and paraphrasing?
     

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hilary Oliver, MCC
ICF Master Certified Coach

Hilary Oliver is a Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor and Mentor Coach. Hilary trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She has worked as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, is a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Hilary also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. She has been the President of the UK ICF and is a Past Chair of the ICF Global Board.
 

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