The Power of Paraphrasing

I have learned from my coaching and facilitation work how powerful paraphrasing can be. When grounded in authentic, nonjudgmental, curious listening, and not used to interrupt, redirect or override, it can enhance the value of any conversation.

Here’s how it typically plays out. I’ll listen to a client (or team) describe a job challenge or area of frustration — letting them wander a bit about how they feel, throw in some examples, and even draw discouraging conclusions. And then I’ll use more neutral and precise language to highlight what seems most important to them or to synthesize their story into a theme we can explore. As a result…

  • The individual is energized by the sheer fact that she (or he) is truly being heard and understood – their stress goes down, and their sense of possibility go up;
  • She is motivated to continue thinking out loud, using the paraphrasing as helpful building blocks to advance her own thinking;
  • Sometimes an exciting fresh “spark” of insight emerges by combining their own thoughts with the paraphrasing;
  • Finally, the culminating clarity of thought leaves the individual (or team) feeling more confident about navigating their work challenges, because seemingly large but vague negative feelings have been transformed into discrete problems or opportunities that seem within reach.

With deep listening and paraphrasing in your conversational tool kit, you can be a valuable thought partner to any colleague or friend. Just look out for any signs that you are off base, overdoing it and interrupting, or talking more than listening.

React or Reset: The Choice That Every Conversation Presents

So much comes at us via our daily conversations… requests, misunderstanding, emotions, surprises, opinions and so on. Much of it may be welcome, validating, and easy to respond to. Some of it seriously challenges us! My coaching often focuses on those challenges: an executive feels disappointed, misled, disrespected, or misunderstood. We talk about how they will respond or recover from their initial response.

First, acknowledge that the initial tempting response in a challenging exchange is to express our raw emotion – to validate our own views, efforts, and ego. For example, a CEO client inadvertently heard an employee make an unprofessionally harsh comment about the CEO. The employee was mortified. The CEO could easily have treated her harshly. Instead, she wisely told her, “I’m going to assume that was a one-time mistake and just put it behind me. You should too.”

The desire to be unfiltered is understandable but rarely constructive. Our reactive responses come from our emotional triggers, our egos, and our fatigue. They are an instinctive attempt to simply cope through the moment at hand.

So how do we resist? We need compelling reasons, and I believe we all have those reasons right in front of us. Namely, our values and our agenda. The trick is to “catch” yourself before you let emotions and impulses do the talking, and remember to pause and choose the more thoughtful, values-based approach. This is hard and takes practice, since it entails discrediting our instincts.

I love to engage with clients as they think out loud and choose the value or end goal they will use to drive their next exchange with a challenging colleague. Just pick one important professional value that you strive to model – such as flexibility, a learning mentality, calmness, appreciation, staff development, etc. Or pick one important work-specific goal, such keeping a particular person motivated, keeping a relationship cooperative, getting a task done well. With the value or goal as your compass, choose your next move. If your “script” does not fully embody that value or goal, then you haven’t chosen well. This is not a guarantee of perfect outcomes, but it ensures you will contribute to rather than detract from desired results. And you’ll have less to regret later.

Worst case. Best case. Most likely case… What to plan for

What conversations worry you? My executive clients often must plan for conversations that they are anxious about. They worry about being misunderstood – everything from coming on too strong to appearing weak or incompetent– and ultimately not getting close to their desired outcome. A simple 3-step mental exercise can help you prepare for your own difficult conversations.

Our survival instincts lead us to focus on the worst-case outcome of a tricky interaction. For example, one client recently thought that initiating an assertive conversation about a promotion possibility could backfire, such that her boss would think less of her and it would strain their relationship. It’s good to acknowledge such possibilities as your Step One.

Next, as Step Two, force yourself to consider what the best possible outcome might look like – which is the reason to have your conversation in the first place. Think broadly of any secondary benefits as well as the main one – e.g., a stronger work relationship or a new win/win solutions.

And Step Three is where you ground yourself: Consider what the most likely outcome will be. It will lie between the two extremes, and should now feel both achievable and worth pursuing. By doing this, my promotion-seeking client built up the courage to plan and have her promotion conversation using the right language.

When we see past worst-case thinking, and head into a meeting that we think we can manage and that has worthwhile objectives, our can-do mindset shows up in words, body language, tone and agility. So, try the whole preparation package: Step One, Step Two, and Step Three thinking.

Yikes… I’ve Never Done This Before!

You know that uncomfortable feeling… You’re a rookie on a new assignment. You might screw it up or choke in front of colleagues, others may sense your inexperience. Your reputation is on the line along with your organization’s results.

Self-limiting, fear can arise whenever we take on a new responsibility. Whether it is managing a team, presenting to top management, or planning a new program, we can easily talk ourselves out of confidence and position ourselves to underperform. OR… we can “flip” what we do with that unfamiliarity.

Everything you’ve successfully done, and anything you’ve later excelled at is something that, at some point, you did for the first time – and survived. Most of those firsts probably tapped into skills you already have, and were not failures, even if you later improved. So, to manage anxiety, it is worth noting these potential advantages of being a beginner rather than an expert. You will likely:
Be more creative and resourceful, looking at things from more angles rather than rely on old assumptions, conventions or narrow perspectives
Be more curious and ask great questions without being self-conscious or over-relying on what worked last time
Be more thorough and thoughtful rather than use “auto pilot” or wing it
Be more energized by the work because you are in learning mode
And whether a beginner, intermediate or expert at something, you always operate along a spectrum of many possible outcomes such that one misstep or bad judgment call is not failure. A mistake is simply a notch back on that spectrum, putting you at a new starting point from which to continue, with trust in yourself and your sources of support.

Yes, You Can Be Too Cooperative

Being called a collaborative team player is a legitimate mark of good performance. A cooperative approach helps any group improve the quantity and quality of work done. So can you really overdo it? Surprisingly, yes, and here’s why….

Being very accommodating to the requests, suggestions and implicit demands of others often involves serious trade-offs that may not result in a net gain. Some examples from my clients:
When a less informed manager proposes an ill-advised plan of action, but in deference to her seniority, you do not make a case for a preferable alternative.
When you try to educate your boss about an imminent decision but do so with such an accommodating touch that you sound ambivalent and are not truly heard.
When someone (intentionally or not) deflects your concerns by inappropriately joking about them and you go along, maybe even encouraging them with friendly laughter.
When team members complain about their work, and in order to keep them happy, you let them off the hook, crowding out your own important work to do theirs.
Each example reveals opportunity costs of some kind – around decision-making, productivity, and team norms more generally. If any of them resonate with you, keep an eye out for your own tendency to overdo accommodation. If appropriate, recalibrate how accommodating you are by considering both the degree of “cooperation” you expect from others and the value of asserting your own views. This should help you balance a healthy cooperative outlook with your own grounded stance from which you add value.

[Side note: Not everyone needs to watch out for the tendency to “overachieve” in accommodation. Some folks gravitate too far in the other direction.]

Good News: You’re Part of the Problem

A new coaching client, after our first session, said “I now see that I’m part of the problem.” His new awareness is a wonderful launching point for valuable work. Unfortunately, this insight is more often something we resist or deny. Our egos work very hard – and effectively — to have us look the other way, outside of ourselves, when diagnosing interpersonal problems. We are naturally skilled at finding something and someone to blame for any friction in our work relationships. But it of course takes two to sustain a conflict. Regardless of who has more or less responsibility for the initial communication breakdown, as long as each party has more than 1 percent responsibility, both parties can and should help move toward an improved status quo.

You can choose to look for this “I’m part of the problem” discovery in any strained work relationships, and then see it as good news. It’s good news for two reasons:

• First, if you are part of the problem, then you are already embedded right at the heart of it. That means you’re ideally positioned to be a catalyst. You are at the control panel with a choice of change levers you can pull that will directly impact the relationship. You don’t have to look for hidden solutions or stretch way outside your lane.

• Second, when you acknowledge you are a player in the problem, you will come up with solutions in which you are also a player. And you can control your own actions and assumptions. If you choose to define yourself as outside the problem, then the solutions you generate – or wish for — will likely be dependent upon the actions of others – people you do not control. You might be able to force a few short-lived behavior changes in others, but you won’t change attitudes over the longer term unless you are a willing, visible protagonist in the solution.

To test drive this approach, identify one slightly strained work relationship or misunderstanding (don’t start with your toughest cookie). Now put yourself in the driver’s seat (which is really where you were all along) to choose a next move and attitude shift. Look beyond your first instincts surrounding the “problem person” and decide what you will do to shift the dynamic and bring about a more constructive response.

Go Slow to Go Smart

As we energetically lean forward into the new year with fresh goals and to-do lists, it’s a good time to also slow down. Overdoing it on work pace is a recurring temptation that doesn’t deliver. In fact, one reason my clients value their coaching sessions is because they provide a legitimate excuse and safe place to step off the efficiency treadmill to do some valuable work that requires a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Whether it’s due to our hardwired nature, pressure from colleagues, difficulty saying no, client deadlines, or all of the above, we often show up to our work assuming that maximum speed is good. But maximum productivity isn’t achieved at maximum speed. Going pedal to the metal entails unseen opportunity costs, such as overlooking a better solution to a problem, a colleague’s great idea, chances to learn or teach or to strengthen a relationship.

To move toward your own optimal pace, look at the possible benefits listed below. Do you see something you inadvertently sacrifice in the name of efficiency that is especially valuable? And are you willing to try to slow down and make room for it? Slowing down may entail a one-time experiment or a repeatable daily or weekly ritual. In just a few (slower, intentional) minutes, you could cultivate one of these important work attributes for a rewarding return on your time.

• Strategic thinking
• Quality/Accuracy
• Creativity
• Collaboration
• Mentoring/teaching
• Learning
• Relationships
• Showing appreciation

We Need To Even Things Out

Decades ago, as a gymnast, I used to do the “wheel” pose without a thought. Now, in yoga class, striking the right balance of strength and flexibility requires greater care. My yoga teacher recently offered a trick that applies to other difficult endeavors. Here’s the tip… EVEN THINGS OUT. In other words, spread out your effort – and awareness – across all the challenge spots of an endeavor.

Anything that really challenges us to the point of feeling a strain demands things of us on multiple fronts — be strategic AND practical AND creative, be decisive AND thorough AND adaptive, be patient AND firm AND flexible.

The most comfortable and sustainable response to a challenge can be to bring at least some awareness and some effort to every edge of it, rather than force so hard in any one way that it backfires. For example, you may need to express decisiveness to send the right signals to your team about a difficult change, but don’t overdo it. Decisiveness coupled with good thorough research (justification) and agility (to course correct) will get you much farther – with less wear and tear – than over-achieving on only decisiveness. Even things out!

For the yogis wondering about my current “wheel” pose… I learned that I can hold it longer and more comfortably if I consciously scan my body and check that I’m evening out the pressure and effort across my shoulders, my back and my legs. If all three chip in proportionately on the flexibility and strength required, then none of them fatigues as fast. The same likely applies to one’s golf swing, tennis game and swimming stroke.

The Golden Rule Is Not Enough

The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. – falls short, if you want to be a great colleague, manager, or friend who brings out the best in others.

For example, I recently helped an executive (“Anne”) understand that just because she thrives when granted autonomy and flexibility to do her work, she cannot assume that the same thing works for her team members. She now realizes that employees who want more guidance and feedback are not necessarily “high maintenance,” but rather, simply value structure and predictability over autonomy and flexibility, and she has adjusted her management style accordingly. Anne also discovered that her own work style is embedded with needs and wants that others accommodate to bring out her best. The learning has been a win/win: less frustration for her, and her team performs better and experiences more job satisfaction.

Such insights around personal differences are at the heart of many executive coaching engagements. The Myers-Briggs Personality Type assessment (MBTI) is my favorite source of simple, non-judgmental language that describes some of the fundamental personality differences that we embody. With or without the MBTI tool, the key is to understand that each of your preferences – such as Anne’s preference for flexibility – are part of a much broader spectrum of equally valid ones that others might hold – such as her teammates’ preference for predictability. This insight will help you and your organization benefit from the complementary approaches and contributions of others and reduce the likelihood of frustrating misunderstandings.

Here are other common biases and disconnects that are driven by innate preferences and may help you understand challenging relationships:

• Just because you love to brainstorm in unstructured (perhaps noisy) energetic groups, does not mean your colleague does his best thinking that way.

• And even if you naturally think in big concepts and broad possibilities, your manager may prefer to start with the details and connect the dots more deliberatively.

• And for a more personal example … You may prefer to plan and structure your vacation time, while your life partner enjoys a more spontaneous approach.

Do you see any opportunities to up your collaborative game and “do unto others as they would prefer you do unto them”?

What Snow Days Can Teach Us

This winter was a great opportunity to observe the impact of snow days on our work and lives. It’s not surprising that people accept the slow-down that a big storm and unplowed roads impose on us. We understand when people cannot travel safely or predictably, and postpone meetings and deliverables. If reasonable efforts are made to take care of top priorities and do some contingency planning, no one gets criticized, blamed, and penalized. But this adaptability is very much the exception in our busy lives.

The widespread acceptance of a “Snow Day Slow-down” is a refreshing reminder, in our fast-paced, do-more, do-it-now culture, that the consequences of a delay are often not as costly as we imagine. During the rest of the year, we can – and occasionally should — find other legitimate reasons to slow ourselves down, and proactively manage the expectations of others accordingly. Sometimes it’s a quality versus quantity trade-off, or speed versus creativity. Decide when you would most benefit from a one-hour pause to catch your breath, get out of the weeds, and organize your thoughts and plans, or a “snow day” of solo, strategic work time – or personal/family time — that is protected from interruption. When we give ourselves permission to try this, we generally find that the benefits of clearer thinking and more focused energy outweigh any costs of delay.