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Paraphrasing in Counselling

Alexander Draghici ∙ Updated: 10/26/2020 Medically Reviewed 

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In essence, paraphrasing is a micro skill that allows counselors to create an authentic bond with their clients  Together with encouraging and summarizing, paraphrasing plays a crucial role in therapeutic communication, making the client feel understood and listened to.  In other words, paraphrasing in counseling is what makes the client say, “Finally, someone who understands what I’m going through.” Without this essential ingredient, counseling sessions would be nothing more than dull and impersonal exchanges of ideas.

 

What is the difference between reflecting and paraphrasing in Counseling?

Paraphrasing and reflecting are close synonyms for most people, both playing a crucial role in any form of communication.

Although paraphrasing and reflecting are fundamental counseling communication skills [1], these two processes can have slightly different connotations in a therapeutic context.

In essence, reflecting is like putting a mirror in front of your clients, helping them gain a better sense of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors they experienced in a situation that has meaning for them.

Of course, this does not mean you have to parrot their message; simply highlight the link between different ideas and emotions and how one influences the other.

When reflecting, it is vital to match the client’s tone and even body language so that he/she knows that you’ve received the message and the feelings that accompany his/her story.

On the other hand, paraphrasing is about capturing the essence of their story with a brief statement that emphasizes the underlying emotional vibe.

This technique is particularly useful when clients know how ideas and emotions can merge to create a subjective experience, but you want them to feel understood and listened to.

In a way, we could argue that paraphrasing is a brief version of reflecting.

 

Let’s look at a brief example of paraphrasing in counseling:

Client: I had a huge fight with Andrew last night. At some point, he stormed out and didn’t come back ‘til morning. I tried calling him all night, but his phone was switched off. I was worried sick and thought he did something stupid. This whole thing was like a nightmare that I could not wake up from.

Therapist: It seems this unpleasant event has put you through a lot of fear and anxiety.

 

Now let’s take a look at reflecting:

Client: I had a huge fight with Andrew last night. At some point, he stormed out and didn’t come back ‘til morning. I tried calling him all night, but his phone was switched off. I was worried sick and thought he did something stupid. This whole thing was like a nightmare that I could not wake up from.

Therapist: I can only imagine how terrifying it must have felt to see your partner storm out after a huge fight without telling you where he is going or when he’ll be back.

 

As you can see, both processes require active listening. But while paraphrasing is a short statement that highlights the emotional tone of the situation, a reflective response captures “the vibe” of the story, along with other essential details.

 

How do you paraphrase?

 

  1. Start by listening

Whether the purpose is to paraphrase or reflect, listening is always the first step.

Through active listening, counselors gain a better sense of what their clients have experienced in a particular situation. Active listening means looking beyond the surface and trying to connect with the client on an emotional level.

To achieve this level of emotional depth, counselors listen with both their ears and their hearts. That means putting themselves in their clients’ shoes and zeroing in on the emotional aspect of the experience.

 

  1. Focus on feelings and thoughts rather than circumstances

When we listen to another person’s story, the most visible aspects are related to the actual events that he or she has gone through.

But details like names, dates, locations, or other circumstantial issues are less relevant than how the person interpreted and consequently felt in a particular situation.

When it comes to paraphrasing, counselors are trained to look beyond circumstances and identify why a client has chosen to talk about a particular event.

In almost every case, the reason is a set of emotional experiences.

 

  1. Capture the essence of the message

Although people can experience a wide range of emotions in a given situation or context, there’s always an underlying feeling that defines how they react.

That underlying emotional vibe is the “golden nugget” that counselors are looking to capture and express through paraphrasing.

If done right, paraphrasing in counseling creates an emotional bridge that sets the foundation for authentic and meaningful interactions. This will encourage clients to open up and share their struggles.

 

  1. Offer a brief version of what has been said

The last step is providing a concise version that highlights the emotional tone of the story.

Once this message reaches the client, it creates a sense of understanding that builds trust and authentic connection.

Long story short, paraphrasing is a valuable tool for cultivating empathy and facilitating therapeutic change.

 

How does paraphrasing help in communication?

 

Cultivating clarity (on both sides)

Any form of communication, whether it’s a therapeutic process, a negotiation, or a casual chat between friends, involves exchanging ideas.

And when people exchange ideas and opinions, there’s always the risk of confusion and misunderstanding.

By paraphrasing what the other person has shared, not only that you cultivate empathy, but you also let him/her know that the message has been received and understood correctly.

Research indicates that paraphrasing in counseling helps clients clarify their issues. [2] The more clients understand the inner-workings of their problems, the better they can adjust their coping strategies.

In a nutshell, paraphrasing eliminates ambiguity and paves the way for clarity.

 

Facilitating emotional regulation

One of the main functions of paraphrasing is to build empathy between two or more people engaged in conversation.

But the effects of paraphrasing on emotions extend way beyond empathy and understanding.

One study revealed that empathic paraphrasing facilitates extrinsic emotional regulation. [3] People who receive empathy through paraphrasing feel understood, and that prompts them to engage in a more intense emotional regulation process.

What starts as extrinsic emotional regulation slowly becomes intrinsic emotional regulation. This is the reason why someone who’s going through a rough patch can feel better by merely talking to a person who listens in an empathic manner and doesn’t necessarily hand out solutions or practical advice.

Paraphrasing can be a vital skill in heated arguments where two people have opposing views that result in emotional turmoil.

If one of them manages to exercise restraint over their intense emotional reactions and tries to paraphrase what the other shares, it could change the whole dynamic of the conversation.

 

What is the role of paraphrasing in listening?

As we discussed throughout this article, paraphrasing is one of the critical aspects of active listening.

It’s what turns a passive individual who listens only to have something to say when it’s his/her turn to speak into an active listener who understands and resonates on an emotional level.

Furthermore, paraphrasing is a means by which we provide valuable feedback on the topic of discussion, keeping the conversation alive.

It is also the tool that allows therapists to build safe spaces where clients feel comfortable enough to unburden their souls by sharing painful experiences and gaining clarity.

To sum up, paraphrasing in counseling is a vital micro skill that creates an authentic connection, providing clients with the opportunity to experience a sense of understanding.

Knowing there is someone who resonates with your emotional struggles makes your problems seem less burdensome.

 

References

[1] J. Kuntze, H. T. van der Molen and M. P. Born, “Increase in counselling communication skills after basic and advanced microskills training,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 79, no. 1, pp. 175-188, 2010.
[2] R. Williams, M. Bambling, R. King and Q. Abbott, “In‐session processes in online counselling with young people: An exploratory approach,” Counselling & Psychotherapy Research, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 93-100, 2009.
[3] M. Seehausen, P. Kazzer, M. Bajbouj and K. Prehn, “Effects of empathic paraphrasing – extrinsic emotion regulation in social conflict,” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3, p. 482, 2012.

 

About the author 

Alexander Draghici

Alexander Draghici is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, CBT practitioner, and content writer for several mental health websites. His work focuses mainly on strategies designed to help people manage and prevent two of the most common emotional problems: anxiety disorders and depression.


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