Summarising as a Practice in Effective Communication

Summarising is the second effective interpersonal communication skill which forms part of the cyclical process of Listening - Summarising - Questioning that promotes Effective Communication and Effective Conflict Resolution.

A woman walks down the road and gradually becomes aware that a car has pulled up alongside her (no it’s not what you might think!). The passenger window is wound down and the person inside asks:

"Excuse me!"

"Yes" the woman replies.

"I wonder if you could tell me how I get to the Hospital from here?"

"Of course, you keep going down this road for about half a mile and come to some traffic lights. Turn left there and carry on for about a mile. You’ll probably see it before you need to turn off again anyway but about a mile along from there is a right hand turning with big signs outside so you can’t miss it, showing you the entrance to the Hospital."

"Ok so that’s keep going for half a mile, turn left at the traffic lights, carry on for a mile and then turn right and it is well signposted at that point anyway. Is that right?"

"That’s it you’ve got it."

"Thank you very much!"

"Ok, no problem."

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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 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.

Summarising 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 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.

All of this inhibits effective communication as it adds an additional burden for the speaker to have to do this 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.

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

An effective 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.

Listening, Summarising and Questioning - The Simple, Effective Skills of Conflict Resolution.

Purchase this e-booklet of the webpages describing all 3 skills with some additional comments and clarifications for just $3! via the Buy Now button below.

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"Hi Alan. I am a mediator/conflict resolution advisor for [Canadian Government Agency]. I also coordinate the mediations in our area and am responsible for finding ways to help our volunteer mediator network.

This article is the BEST article on questioning I have ever read and I'd like, with your permission, to pass it along to our mediators.

Your examples of both genuinely open and 'not-so-open' with explanations are very insightful.

Thanks so much. Ml"

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A common practice that leads to ineffective communication is the assumption that we 'know what someone is feeling' from what they say, or even from their 'body language'. And so it can easily be interpreted that someone is, for example, angry, and so we may say this too them: 

"I can see you are really angry"....or 

"Please don't get angry"....or 

"Well, your body language is very angry"....or whatever emotion we have ascribed to them. 

Or, we may not summarise anything back to them and assume we know (speak for them) what they were feeling. 

In both of these situations the communication is ineffective: 

In the first,the speaker has to either 'go with' the feeling they have been ascribed by the 'listener', or, has to spend time challenging it, adding an extra burden to the act of communicating. 

In the second case the listener goes away without ever knowing that their interpretation of the person's emotion is wrong. 

Of course, they may be right.........but why take that risk with the quality of our communication when there could be many many other descriptions that the speaker would use to identify how they feel? 

The extent to which we believe we know what someone wants, why they are doing what they are doing, how they feel and what they are thinking, instead of believing we need to explore this with them, is a reflection of the extent to which we are not listening to them. We are speaking for them. 

But there is a much simpler, less ambiguous approach: 

We can simply ask: "So how do you feel about this?" and trust that whatever answer they give is genuinely how they feel? Even if it's to say "I'm not sure"

This saves us all the bother of having to decide for people what they feel, it saves them having to disagree with our decision, it allows them to speak for themselves and it allows us to trust that they know their own mind and feelings. 

They will always know this better than us won't they? If you don't believe that, you've got a serious attack of the Rescuer Syndrome, Don't worry though, we're working towards a cure via this website and many of the others that it links to.

Summarising is not a 'high pressure' activity for the listener as the summary is not going to be 'perfect' the first time it is given and it does not need to be.

One of the listener's uses for summarising is to be able to acknowledge that their listening is not perfect (we do make mistakes and it is ok to do so) and that they care enough about the quality of their listening that they want to improve it through use of a summary.

Giving opinions about what was said inhibits effective communication as it is no longer a summary, but a commentary, and doesn't, therefore, serve the same purpose.

For the speaker, a major benefit of an effective summary is that it gives them a chance to 'hear themselves'.

It allows them to review their thoughts and feelings from a more detached position, enabling them to gain more of an overview of what they have said.

Communication and Conflict featured book: A book which reveals the power, the beauty and the reverence for others that exists within the simple act of listening. If you want to understand what is meant by mindful communication - read this!

Seeing things 'as a whole' can be difficult when caught up in the emotions and reactions of a distressing situation.

Summarising what someone has said enables this to happen and promotes empowerment of the speaker to be able to create better ways of responding to their situation.

But it is not just distressing situations that are helped by summarising what those involved say about it. Any creative challenge is assisted through using this approach.

Mediation is essentially the facilitation and support of creativity by those involved in a dispute, but the skills used to do this are just as applicable to any context where creativity is being facilitated through communication.

This approach to summarising means that it becomes a co-operative process, through which both speaker and listener are trying to maximise the effectiveness of their communication. And through which, the speaker is assisted in gaining a better understanding of themselves. Isn't that ultimately what we are all trying to achieve when we communicate?

The Client or Whoever is Speaking is the Expert in their own situation:

I was once working late in the office at the first job I did in Mediation, when I was Case Worker for Camden Mediation Service in Central London. An elderly gentleman called up, quite upset that he was being disturbed by noise from his upstairs neighbours but no agency that he had approached had done anything about it.

He talked at length for about 30-35 minutes, and throughout the call I said 'Yes', 'OK', or did a brief summary of what he'd just said, but no more.

When he felt he'd got to the end of all that he had to say about the situation, he said to me: 'Thank you, you're the first person I've been to about this that knows what they are talking about!'.

I explained to him that I'd simply said back to him what he'd told me, to try to help him think through what to do about the situation.

He decided in the end that he'd probably just have to put up with the noise but felt more frustrated by his efforts to get something done about it than the situation itself. The suggestions and advice he received from the agencies he'd approached implied to him they simply hadn't listened nor had the inclination to help.

This is unfortunate as their intention was probably to try to help but their response of 'coming up with an answer' rather than simply assisting him in understanding his own response, through summarising, had the opposite effect, in his experience.

And so, to summarise:

  • A summary uses the words used by the speaker to maintain their ownership of the communication and to remove the need for the speaker to continuously restate and elaborate on what they have said.
  • A summary supports creativity by enabling an overview of a situation or experience to be 'played back' to the speaker, using their own words.
  • A summary supports both the speaker and the listener in improving the quality of their communication and provides an opportunity for them to work co-operatively in achieving this.
  • A summary does not contain advice or opinion or re-interpretation.

Whether used informally with friends, relatives etc. or whether in more formal professional or work related contexts, summarising is of enormous benefit when we wish to improve the quality of our communication.

In order to take the level of our communication even deeper we can draw upon the next skill used to promote effective communication and conflict resolution..... Questioning.

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