Summarising is concrete skill that, like paraphrasing, is built upon mindful listening and produces exactly the same benefits as paraphrasing does. The very act of summarising boosts your mindful listening ability and it will become easier the more you practise.
Logically, it makes sense to summarise towards the end of a conversation. This is the most obvious time and place when all main threads of the discussion converge.
Additionally, there are at least three other circumstances where an interim summary adds value.
- The conversation has been longer or more complex.
- The other person appears to be confused or seems lost.
- You need time to think and refocus your own attention and decide where to go next with conversation.
Summarising is NOT about word for word repetition. The challenge in summarising lies in capturing the essence of what has been said and identifying the key milestones in the narrative as told by the other person. It is also about picking up on and respecting any openly expressed feelings. If they are indeed openly expressed, those feelings are likely to be important to the speaker and should be mentioned and honoured where appropriate in your summary. All other unnecessary details or irrelevant information should be left out.
It is difficult to give an exact indication about how long a summary should be, particularly when you are summarising a dialogue where the conversation has flowed from one person to the other. A loose guideline would be to reduce the original length by about two thirds.
The best way to find out more about how your summarising skills as a listener are perceived is to get some direct feedback. Recruit a willing volunteer or two who each have fifteen minutes to spare. This exercise is best done in a quiet spot where you and your volunteer can sit comfortably.
Goal: to solicit each volunteer’s feedback on the way you summarise what they tell you.
Process: ask your volunteer to relate directly to you a story or a personal experience or to talk about a challenge at work for about three to five minutes. As the listener, your aim is to pay full attention and capture in a summary the essence of what the other person is saying. Before the volunteer gets started, let them know that the aim of the exercise is not for you to repeat exactly what they said, but to focus on the key points. Tell them also that you will ask them some questions afterwards to enable them to provide feedback on the quality of your summary.
Questions to ask your volunteers:
- How accurately did my summary reflect what you told me?
- Were there any points where I drifted away from your perspective and started adding my own interpretations?
- How satisfied are you with the length of my summary?
- Did I leave anything out that was important to you?
- Overall, how comfortable were you with my summary?
Reflect on the feedback and decide what you would like to improve or do differently.