What is Paraphrasing?
Paraphrasing is repeating back your understanding of the material that has been brought by the client in your own words. A paraphrase reflects the essence of what has been said.
We all use paraphrasing in our everyday lives. If you look at your studies to become a counsellor or psychotherapist, you paraphrase in class. Maybe your lecturer brings a body of work, and you list and make notes: you’re paraphrasing as you distil this down to what you feel is important.
The Power of Paraphrasing:
How Paraphrasing Builds Empathy
How does paraphrasing affect the client-counsellor relationship? First of all, it helps the client to feel both heard and understood. The client brings their material, daring to share that with you, and you show that you’re listening by giving them a little portion of that back – the part that feels the most important. You paraphrase it down. If you do that accurately and correctly, and it matches where the client is, the client is going to recognise that and feel heard: ‘Finally, somebody is really listening, really understanding what it is that I am bringing.’
This keys right into empathy, because it’s about building that empathic relationship with the client – and empathy is not a one-way transaction. Carl Rogers (1959, pp. 210-211) defines ‘empathy’ as the ability to ‘perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the “as if” conditions’. In other words, we walk in somebody’s shoes as if their reality is our own – but of course it’s not our reality, and that’s where the ‘as if’ comes in. I’ve heard this rather aptly described as ‘walking in the client’s shoes, but keeping our socks on’!
Empathy is a two-way transaction – it’s not enough for us to be 100% in the client’s frame of reference and understanding their true feelings; the client must also perceive that we understand. When the client feels at some level that they have been understood, then the empathy circle is complete.
For example, if you watch a TV programme in which somebody achieves something that is really spectacular, you may find yourself moved for this person. You’re almost there with them on this journey, and as they’re receiving their award or their adulation, and the audience is clapping for what they’ve done, you may even be moved to tears. But the person on the TV cannot perceive your reaction – the empathy is empty, because it’s one-way.
So empathy is effective only if your client feels heard and understood – i.e. they sense that empathic connection. Using paraphrasing is a way of completing the empathy circle – a way of letting them know that we see and hear them.
Other Benefits of Paraphrasing
Paraphrasing also highlights issues by stating them more concisely. This is focusing down: it invites the client to go and delve deeper into part of what they have said. We can also use paraphrasing to check out the accuracy of our perception as a counsellor.
Below is an example of my use of paraphrasing to clarify my understanding of what was brought. This shows how paraphrasing affects the therapeutic relationship; because the paraphrase fits well for the client, she feels heard and understood. As this happens, the material deepens.
I really have a battle with doing things for the impression that others will have of me, or the approval that I will get from other people for what it is that I do. So much so that I will very often override myself, my family, so that I can gain the acceptance, I guess, of other people, whether friends, family or clients in a work situation. I will always favour what the action would be that would gain that acceptance, that would not bring up any sort of confrontation or maybe have a conflict situation arise from it.
So, I guess, I’m eager to please, wanting to make sure that all things are well and smooth – and that I’m liked and accepted with whatever the transaction or situation may be.
As you’re saying that, it really feels like a lot of hard work. A lot of hard work, pre-empting whatever it is that they would have expected of you, and then ‘sacrificing’, I guess, is a word that came up for me – sacrificing your own wants/needs to be able to meet what you perceive is expected of you. Have I understood that correctly?
Yeah, the word ‘sacrifice’ really captures the feeling that comes up for me when I sort of reflect and look over that kind of situation. So often, I will sacrifice my own wants and my own desires…
In this example, the client really resonated with the word ‘sacrifice’, which the counsellor introduced as a paraphrase; she really felt understood. And it’s interesting to note that throughout the rest of this stimulated session, the word ‘sacrifice’ became almost a theme.
Another paraphrase in this example was ‘hard work’. Although the client hadn’t used this phrase herself, she was presenting visually as weighed down. Her shoulders looked heavy as she was bringing the material. So the counsellor was paraphrasing, not only the words of the narrative, but digging deeper, looking for the feelings and paraphrasing the whole presence of that client within that relationship.
Listening for ‘the Music behind the Words’
Here is another example of paraphrasing, from the same skills session. Try to see if you can hear, as Rogers would put it, ‘the music behind the words’, where the counsellor looks deeper than just the words the client is bringing, paraphrasing back their whole being.
Out of my own will or my own free choice, I would put that aside and favour what would be accepted – or what I think someone else would rather I do. And sometimes it’s hard. It leaves me with a situation of not knowing if they actually really realise what it is that I sacrificed, that I’ve given up, so that it can fall into what I think they would prefer in that situation.
It feels confusing to you in that situation of whether they even perceive what it is that you are sacrificing, what you’re giving up. That it almost feels like you’re giving up part of yourself to match what you think they may want or need from you. And I kind of got the feeling, as you were saying that you wonder if they even see that.
Yeah. As I was sort of verbalizing and talking through that, I actually realised that even within that sacrifice, it’s all my perception of what I think they might want me to do. And just saying that is actually a bit ridiculous. Because how am I to know what it is that they want or need to do? So here I am – disregarding my own desires, for lack of a better word – to do something I assume someone else would want me to do instead.
I thought it was really interesting that this client started off in what felt to me like an external locus of evaluation. She was confused, and wondering whether the people she refers to understood what she was giving up to meet their perceived expectations. Immediately after the counsellor’s paraphrase, this client experienced a moment of movement from an external to an internal locus of evaluation, where she realised it was all about her own perceptions and responsibility. In this way, she went from being powerless to having the power to change this situation.
Next Steps in Paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is so much more than just repeating the client’s words back to them using your own words. Although it might feel very simplistic – and there’s often a tendency to paraphrase the narrative/story that the client brings, rather than their feelings/process – there’s so much more to it than that and so much deeper that we can go. There’s real power in paraphrasing.
I suggest that you:
Paraphrasing is definitely something that should be debated. I hope that this chapter will encourage you to go out there with a new passion for – and a new way of looking at – paraphrasing!
Alternatives to Questions
What else can we use when we’re not sure what exactly a client means? For example, if a client was speaking about his brother and father, he might say: ‘I really struggle with my brother and my father. They don’t get on, and at times he makes me so angry.’ Who does the client mean by ‘he’: the brother or the father? Not knowing who makes him angry means I cannot be fully within the client’s frame of reference.
I could ask: ‘Sorry, just so I can understand, who it is that you’re angry at – your father or your brother?’ This risks ripping the client out of that emotion (the anger). Instead, we could use reflection: ‘He makes you so angry.’ This invites the client to expand on what he has said. He might say: ‘Yes, ever since I was a young boy, my dad was always…’ In this case, I didn’t need to ask a question – we’re still in the feelings, and I’ve got what I needed in order to be fully in the client’s frame of reference.
Of course, the client might not reveal the information I need in his answer – for example, if he responded to my reflection: ‘He does. He makes me really angry – in fact, so angry that I don’t know what to do about it anymore.’ In that case, I would still need to put in a question: ‘Is this your dad or your brother that you’re referring to?’
Rogers, C, 1959. ‘A Theory of Therapy, Personallity, and Interpersonal Relations, as Developed in the Client-Centered Framework’, in S Koch (ed.), Psychology: A Study of a Science (Vol.3), New York: McGraw-Hill, 184-256.