4.4 Feeding Back Selected Highlights

Feeding back your understanding during a conversation does two things. It convinces the other person that you are listening and capturing their meaning. Second, it allows the other person to adjust your understanding if it’s not accurate or complete. The importance of this skill can’t be over emphasised.

The basic idea is this. You tune-in in order to listen, and you listen and process in order to capture the Explainer/Teller's highlights. The next step is to share selected highlights with the Explainer/Teller.

a. Sharing highlights as a way of communicating understanding

If you are listening to Adam talk about his fear of going to the doctor, how does he know that you understand him, that you are ‘with’ him? There's only one sure way. And that's to tell him what you think his key points are. Not just by repeating what he says, of course, but by putting it into your own words.

As you listen to Adam, you identify a couple of highlights.

At one point you say, "So, the way you see it, it’s the stress and pain associated with the tests that you find particularly difficult to handle.”

Adam responds by saying, "Let me tell you. Last year my gut was in a terrible state. But I kept putting off seeing the doctor because I just dread invasive tests — even if I know they’re necessary. The attitude of the doctors I saw seemed to be ‘tough luck’!"

A sure sign that you’ve captured one of Adam's highlights is the fact that he responds by giving an example from his own experience. In essence, Adam says, "That's my point, all right. And here's an example of it." That's what people do when they feel understood. They move on, expanding their stories, clarifying or adding to their messages, elaborating their points of view, or spelling out their cases in greater detail.

But what if you had responded to Adam by saying something like this?

You say, "Adam, aren't you making a mountain out of a molehill? Everyone has to face up to medical tests. You're making too much of them. It's your psychology that needs some revamping."

This is not sharing a highlight. Such a response is a product of judgmental listening and processing. The fact that there may be some truth to what you are saying is not the issue. The way you delivered your ‘truth’ was almost bound to get an adverse reaction. How does Adam respond? Well, first of all with silence. He's been stopped dead in his tracks.

When he recovers, he says, "You may be right … By the way, when are you going to be available for tennis? Give me a call when you’ve thought of a suitable date.”

He probably feels put down. But he doesn't want to damage the relationship, so he merely pauses and then changes the topic. Others might have responded differently, saying such things as, "I'm certainly glad you're not my doctor," or, "Oh, listen to Mr. Hero talk; I'd like to see you on one of those tables," or, "You're about as sensitive as a toilet seat." You get the point. Perhaps Adam's view of medicine does need to be challenged, but this is hardly the way to do it. It’s important to take the time to understand his perspective before you start challenging it.

Since sharing highlights well is an extremely important - and underused - Understander skill, a few more examples are in order when people tell their stories, deliver their messages, share their points of view, and make their cases.

When telling stories

Lucy, 28, is talking to a couple of co-workers at the store where she works. Her story is about her experiences as a volunteer worker in a developing country. Though she has been back for over a year, she is still reliving the time she spent overseas and the benefits she has reaped from her work there.

She says, "The first day I arrived there everything seemed completely strange. It was chaotic. The first night I stayed with a family. I lay awake for hours wondering whether I had made the right decision. But the next day I threw myself into the work to be done at the local school. I got involved with so many things that there was no time to think about myself. A month later I felt I was part of the community. I belonged. Everyone was so welcoming. I'm not sure why, but I even worked hard at getting to know people who at first turned me off. A couple of these people turned out to be my best friends."

Tina, one of her co-workers listens and then says, "It must all seem like a dream now. So far away. And long ago. I bet there were some nightmare moments, too. I'm not sure I'd want to go. I'd be scared to death."

Lydia, another co-worker, interrupts and says, "Two things strike me. Throwing yourself into work solved a lot of problems. And not letting yourself get turned off by your first experiences with people led to new friends. Both paid off."

How do these two responses differ? Analyse them by applying what you have learned so far about listening, processing, and sharing highlights.

You can use the SAME elements - situation or background, Explainer/Teller's actions (or lack thereof), Explainer/Teller's mental states, and Explainer/Teller's experiences to alert you to possible highlights.

Sandra responds to Jim's story about his daughter, Lisa’s, recent escapade at school by saying, "So, once you stepped back and looked at the whole school year, this incident didn't seem that important. It was really out of character for Liza."

Sandra sees the context or background presented by Jim as an important part of the story and feeds it back as a highlight.

Bertrand has been thinking about his friend Beatrice. He likes her a lot, but when they get together they tend to gossip a lot. Sometimes they end up making fun of the people they call friends. He doesn't think that this is such a hot idea. He feels hypocritical. At their next meeting he brings the issue up.

At one point he says, "I like gossip as much as the next person. But sometimes we seem to go overboard. At least I think we do. Or I certainly do. It bothers me afterwards. Last night Jake called. Todd and I had been taking him apart earlier in the day. I felt like a hypocrite talking with him. He's not like the caricature we were making of him. This is beginning to bother me."

Let's pretend that Beatrice has multiple personalities.

Beatrice A responds, "Don't shove your morality off on me. Get off your high horse. Look at yourself in the mirror before accusing others." And she stomps off.

Beatrice B says, "Bert! Everyone gossips. Don't you think that the others are talking about us when we're not around? It's a kind of social sport. It doesn't really hurt anyone. Come on! We’ll all still stay friends."

Beatrice C replies, "Oh, oh, we're being serious, aren't we? Sorry, I don't mean to kid. So you're making a distinction between, well, sort of ‘normal’ gossip and nasty gossip. The second goes over the line and is demeaning. It makes you feel sleazy afterward. So why not indulge in the normal type and get rid of the sleazy stuff?"

Analyse these three responses to Bertrand's remarks in the light of Explainer/Teller and Understander skills and the values that should permeate dialogue. What do you find?

When delivering messages

You can use the MRI elements of a message - the message itself, the reasons for it, and the implications for both the message giver and other people - to alert you to possible highlights. James is talking with Lucy who has just told him that she is breaking off her engagement with her fiancé, Seymour.

At one point he says, "So this really has little to do with Seymour. You're really not sure that you're ready for marriage."

This highlight focuses on the reason behind Lucy's decision. Your choice of highlight depends on what the Explainer/Teller emphasises in delivering the message.

When sharing points of view

Frieda is sharing a point of view with Aaron. They are senior citizens living in an assisted-living facility. The issue centres round house rules laid down by management.

Frieda says, "We need rules. But the problem is, what kind of rules and who should make them? I wouldn't want to live around here if there were no rules. Frankly, I don't like it when people violate the rules on playing radios and TVs loudly after 10:00. But other rules, like lingering in the dining room after meals, and the kind of curtains we are ‘allowed’ to have, and bringing food in from outside - these are things we could decide for ourselves. Or at least, the residents should be polled on them. Getting old is bad enough. I don't want it to be worse by being treated like a child."

Aaron responds by saying, "It's no use talking to me about it, Frieda. I don't make the rules. I just try to keep my head down and get along."

Analyse Aaron's reply. Then take a moment or two and list what you see as some of Frieda's highlights. Remember that feelings can be part of the highlight package. Then write down (or share with a partner) one highlight that you might feed back to Frieda in order to promote good dialogue.

You can use the PRE elements of an opinion or point of view - the point of view itself, the reasons for it, and evidence or examples that back it up - to alert you to possible highlights. For instance, Bernard is talking with his friend Tom about his misgivings about internet stocks and shares.

At one point Tom says, "So, you see many of these stocks as, well, houses of cards, ready to collapse. You see a lot of hype, but you don't see the financial or economic infrastructure that will hold them up. (Chuckles) You're not a ‘true believer’ in the ‘new economy’."

In sharing a highlight, Tom focuses on the point of view itself and a couple of generic reasons Bernard offers for holding his position.

When making cases

In a final example, Sylvester, talking with a neighbour, is making a case for community policing in their neighbourhood. His neighbour feels ambiguous about it, fearing someone is going to get hurt.

Part of what Sylvester says goes something like this, "Your point about someone getting hurt is important. I've dug up what information I could on this. There are about a dozen community policing programmes in the city and suburbs and so far, no one seems to have been hurt. But maybe we should look at it from a different angle. How many people have been saved from getting hurt because of these programmes? This is the kind of stuff that's hard to show through statistics. I'm not saying that no one could get hurt. Rather, I'm looking at things from a trade-off perspective. What if a couple of people, volunteers, mind you, got hurt in some way each year, but dozens or even more were saved from getting hurt? This is the way I think about it."

Once more, take a moment or two and list some of the highlights here. Then write down (or share with a partner) one highlight that you might feed back to Sylvester at the service of dialogue.

Once more you can use the CRITIC elements of making a case - the case itself (together with the Explainer/Teller's credibility), the reasons for the proposal, the interests of concerned stakeholders, the time needed by stakeholders to come to grips with the proposal, the Explainer/Teller's interests, and the flexibility, or compromise, that might be needed to make the proposal viable in the eyes of stakeholders - to alert you to possible highlights. For instance, Esther wants to change some of the house rules of the women's club to which she belongs. She is talking with a few of her fellow members, including Carmen.

At one point Carmen says, "So you want to try to push these changes through at the next meeting because the more time the full membership has to think about them the more they will nitpick. And then nothing will ever get done. But you think that you've discussed the changes with enough solid members to reinforce your feeling that the changes are a good idea."

In her highlight, Carmen focuses on the time element together with the interests of stakeholders, that is, the members of the club.

b. Sharing highlights as a way of checking understanding

The highlights you identify might not always hit the target, even when you are taking pains to tune-in, listen, and process what your conversational partner is saying. Take Joseph, who has been talking with you about his views on the incumbent political party. You have been listening carefully and noting the highlights of what he has been saying.

At one point you say, "So when you look at their platform, they seem to be all for the ‘little guy’. But when you review their actual legislation, the ‘little guy’ seems to get lost. As you see it, they seem to be no different from their opposition in this regard."

If you're right, he'll tell you. Either directly — “You've got it!" — or by continuing with his story, confident that you are with him. In Joseph's case, he might have said, "That's right! Let me give you a couple of examples of just how bad it can get. Let's take taxes …"

On the other hand, if you're wrong, then the misunderstanding can be cleared up on the spot. Let's say your response to Joseph didn't quite hit the mark.

He says, "Well, you're right on the legislation part. But I still think that they're doing a better job than the opposition with the average citizen. For instance …"

You had most of it right. But sharing your highlights enabled Joseph to acknowledge what you had understood correctly and amend what did not quite hit the mark. This makes for mutual understanding.

In Joseph's case, feeding back highlights did two things. First, it showed him that you were interested in understanding his point of view. Second, it gave you an opportunity to check your understanding.

Of course, it would make for a very strange conversation if you demonstrated your understanding every few seconds. Even so, effective communicators, when they are in Understander role, make a conscious effort to regularly check to see if their version of the story or message is the same as the one that the Explainer/Teller is intending to tell.

Sharing highlights is also a way of helping your conversational partners clarify their thinking. You're talking with Manny, who is thinking about taking early retirement. You feedback a few highlights and this helps him to see some of the flaws in his own arguments.

At one point he says, "You know, bouncing ideas off you like this really helps. If I sit and stew about things on my own, well, sometimes I don't make sense."

In virtually every situation, in fact, it can be quite helpful to deliberately demonstrate your understanding as the conversation moves forward.

Feeding back selected highlights of the Explainer/Teller's story, message, point of view, or case is a good way to ‘lubricate’ the conversation, just as a good engineer would lubricate a machine. When you feed back highlights, the Explainer/Teller, confident that he, or she, is making contact, is encouraged to move on. Everyone likes to be understood. It's one of the best feelings we can have.

Remember that good communicators switch between the Explainer/Teller and Understander roles, sometimes quite frequently. So you don't have just one person feeding back highlights. In good dialogue both communicators do this quite naturally. But good communicators, when they are in the Understander role, tend to persist in feeding back highlights until they make sure they have both understood and have communicated their understanding.

The amount of time you spend in the Understander role depends on the kind of conversation you are having. If you are talking with a friend about some problem he, or she, is having, you will probably spend more time in the Understander role. However, if the two of you are planning to start a business together, a great deal of switching between roles is more likely to be the case. You both want to make sure that both of you get your needs met.

c. A guide to sharing highlights

Here are some guidelines for feeding back highlights when you are in the Understander role:

Key points only

When you are in the Understander role, reflect before you speak. Not everything that the Explainer/Teller says is a highlight. If you feed back too much, you will sound like a parrot or a tape recorder. It sounds phony. If you've really understood what has been said, sharing highlights should be natural. Use SAME, MRI, PRE, and CRITIC, to help you identify key points.

‘Interrupting’ if necessary

If the Explainer/Teller goes on without providing openings for you, you will soon find that you've ‘saved up’ too many highlights to share. While there are times when it’s best to let the Explainer/Teller have his, or her say, generally speaking, conversations go better when there is real dialogue. Consider Gloria. She is having some problems with her rather domineering mother, who, as might be expected, tends to go on and on. Her mother in this instance is complaining about her husband's lack of stamina.

Not too far into a particular topic, Gloria ‘interrupts’ and says, "Wait a minute, mum. I'm not sure whether you are saying that you think that something is wrong with him physically. That maybe he should see a doctor."

Her mother replies, "Well, not exactly. I think it's more psychological. A slowed down lifestyle. He can't keep up with me. You've seen him recently. What do you think?"

In this case, Gloria's sharing a highlight helps her mother moderate what she was saying and invite her daughter into some semblance of a dialogue.

Be concrete and specific. Vague highlights lose their impact. Don has been talking about the things he doesn't like about the neighbourhood in which he lives.

You say, "So this area has its downsides. But what seems to annoy you most is the attitude of the people. They don't seem to be friendly at all. At least, not as friendly as the people in your last neighbourhood."

And Don replies, "Well, that's it, isn't it? In fact, if the people were more friendly, this would actually be a better area in which to live … Of course, I haven't had much time to get to know anyone."

Feeding back a highlight about the attitude of the people in the neighbourhood helps Don temper his view somewhat. There are things he likes about the area and maybe he'll have to work at making a few friends.

Including key emotions

Feelings, emotions, and other mental states, such as puzzlement and conviction, often constitute an important part of a highlight. Indeed, sometimes, the emotion is the main part of the highlight. For instance, Joan has just found out that Claude, one of her cousins who was supposed to be a good investment counsellor, has lost all the money entrusted to him by family members. Joan, herself, has lost a significant chunk of her savings. She is bemoaning the fact that no one listened to her when she questioned the whole set-up, that she was stupid enough to go along with the rest of the family, despite her misgivings, that her parents have lost a lot of money and this will affect their retirement plans - and so on.

You say to her, "I've never seen you this angry."

She replies, "I've never been so exasperated in all my life. What bothers me most is that there is nothing we can do about it. Nothing. I've talked to lawyers. We just have to stew in it."

Feeding back the emotion was all that was needed. Joan gets to the heart of it. Nothing can be done about the family's plight. The members of the family are going to have to grit their teeth, manage their emotions, and get on with life.

In feeding back emotions, make sure that you get the right emotion and the right intensity. The statements, "You feel hurt," "You feel relieved," and "You feel enthusiastic," specify different families of emotion. On the other hand, the statements, "You feel annoyed," "You feel angry," and "You're furious," specify different degrees of intensity in the same family (anger). The words ‘sad, mad, bad, and glad’ refer to four of the main families of emotion, while, "sad, very low, and extremely depressed," refer to different intensities in the ‘sadness’ family.

If your conversational partners express their emotions but don't name them directly, be careful to get both the emotion and its intensity right. For instance, Jessica is talking with you about a problem she's having with her sister.

In sharing a highlight, you say, "So, you're amused at her goings on, especially her escapades with younger men."

She replies, "Absolutely not! Her ‘goings on’, as you call them, annoy me no end. Why doesn't she act her age?"

You got it wrong. You misinterpreted what she was saying or, in this case, expressing.

If you had said, "Sounds like all this immaturity on her part really ticks you off."

Jessica might have responded, "Right. So being with her is not much fun. And I'm not the only one in the family that finds her behaviour more than annoying."

Sometimes your conversational partner may actually be talking about emotions felt in the past, that is, at the time of the event being discussed. At other times, they express feelings during the conversation itself. Consider this interchange between Clive, who is going through a divorce, and Thelma, a friend of his. He is in the middle of a child custody proceeding.

He says, rather calmly, "I get furious with her [his ex-wife] when she says things, little snide things, that suggest that I don't take good care of the kids."

Thelma replies, "You really hate it when she intimates that you're not a good father."

Clive isn't angry right now. Rather, he's talking about his anger.

In the following example, Fidel is talking to his wife, Helga, about one of his colleagues at work.

He says in an enthusiastic way, "I threw caution to the wind and confronted him about his sarcasm and it actually worked. He not only apologised, but behaved himself the rest of the trip."

Helga replies, "It's great to take a chance like that and have it pay off."

In this case, Fidel expresses his emotions without naming them. Helga sees the look on his face and responds. Often enough, you will have to read your partners' emotions - both the family and the intensity - in their nonverbal behaviour.

A friend of yours, Jeremy, calls you, tells you he ‘needs’ to see you. He comes over to the house, sits down, looks at the floor, hunches over, and haltingly says: "I don't even know where to start."

And then he falls silent.

You reply, "Well, Jeremy, you're obviously feeling pretty miserable, though I have no idea why."

Jeremy, after a pause, goes on to say, "Well, let me tell you why…"

You see that he is depressed and his nonverbal behaviour indicates that the feelings are quite intense.

Link emotions to what gives rise to them. When you include feelings and other mental states in your highlights, link them to the event or experience that caused them. Generally, feelings are caused by, or accompany, experiences and actions, both your own and those of other people. The generic formula for expression this is, "You feel X because Y."

For instance, in responding to a friend's story, you say, "You feel disappointed because she failed to show up."

Kristin feels bad today because she was so impatient with her aging mother yesterday. Allen feels good because he just received a long newsy letter from a good friend. In the following example, Ernest has been talking about a meeting he has just had with his boss.

At one point, you say, "So you were surprised by her opposition because everything she said up to then indicated that she was on board."

And he replies, "Surprised? I was dumbfounded. From my point of view it was a total about face."

You had the right emotion, but not quite the right intensity. In all of this, however, as has been mentioned before, don't start sounding like a counsellor. "I think you feel bad, not because she jilted you, but because you've discovered unacceptable parts of yourself." Come on.

Recognising strong emotions

If somebody is experiencing strong emotions, it’s often a good idea to recognise these emotions right away in your response. Karen has just heard some gossip that a supposed friend has been spreading about her.

You say, "This is just the kind of back stabbing that really makes you furious. You're still steaming over it."

When someone tells you that he has just received a diagnosis of advanced cancer, you say, "Jamie, what a shock. It's almost unbelievable."

Jamie replies, "It's almost as if I can't catch my breath. My world changed in an instant."

Sometimes recognising and naming a child's feelings can make a difference between the conversation going places or turning into a confrontation.

Lilly says to her six-year-old, "I know you're disappointed because your Dad wouldn't let you go with him. He just couldn't do it this time."

This might not clear everything up but it can keep things from escalating.

Using your own words

Don't start sounding like a doctor, or lawyer, or professional counsellor. Be yourself, even if it means stumbling around a bit every once in a while.

Let’s say your friend Richard has been telling you about starting to date again after a bitter divorce.

If you say, "So you believe that this might be an opportune time to expand your social life," he'll probably think that you've gone weird.

It might be better had you said, "So it's time to move on."

If you begin sounding like the examples in this book, then you are probably off track. Examples often sound stilted. They are used to make a point, not to put words in your mouth.

Finally, don’t fall into the habit of so-called ‘mirroring’. This technique, still popular with some old-school sales people as a rapport-building device, involves repeating back to people some of the exact words they’ve said to you. The idea is to convince the other person the two of you are on the same wavelength because — hey — you even use the same words. It’s not much better than playing back a tape recording.

Admitting uncertainty

Don't pretend to understand when you don't. Don't be afraid to ask for a repeat. Jasmine is discussing her relationship with her husband. You're not sure what her point is.

You say, "Jasmine, I'm not sure what you mean when you say that you've ‘had it with him’. That has a drastic sound to it."

Jasmine replies, "Oh no. I'm talking about going to arts events with him. He's just not interested. What I mean is that I'm not going to try to force him to go any more. I'll go to plays and the ballet with friends who like that sort of stuff."

Confessing your uncertainty helps Jasmine clarify her point. Pretending to understand does nothing to create mutual understanding.

Don't run ahead

Base your highlights on what you've learned so far, not on what you think is coming. And, generally speaking, don't finish the sentences of your conversational partners. You might think you're being understanding, while they might think you're just trying to be smart.

Don't overdo it

Sharing too many highlights can be just as bad as not sharing any. It's true that many people don't share highlights at all. But sometimes when a person discovers the value of sharing highlights, he or she goes overboard. If you do this, you will begin sounding like a counsellor. A poor counsellor at that.

Never reply by saying, "I understand."

This is a cliché and is usually a good indication that you don't understand. A string of "uh-huhs" isn't much better.

Sharing highlights is a great lubricant for dialogue. The reason for this is that it gives you an opportunity to show that you are working at understanding and at the same time to check how successful you've been.

d. Striking the right balance

Here’s an overriding principle that will help you neither overdo, nor under-do, direct sharing of highlights.

Every response you make should indicate that you have been listening and trying to understand.

So, if your response is a question, the question itself should indicate that you have been listening carefully.

If Gloria is going on about a recent fight with her mother, you might say, "You have lots of fights with your mother. I'm not sure what makes this one so special."

While your response is not, technically, a highlight, it does indicate that you have been listening, that you have been identifying key points, and that you are working hard at understanding. Your response is based in part on your understanding of the context, that is, the overall relationship between Gloria and her mother.

The way you tune-in to what your conversational partners are saying can convey understanding. Opening your eyes wider when someone makes a key point is a way of sharing understanding without using words at all.

Even if your response involves moving into the Explainer/Teller role, the way you do it can indicate understanding.

For instance, you might say to Gloria, "I have lots of little disagreements with my father. None of them is that important. But sometimes they add up and I find myself overreacting to some little incident or other. I explode. It seems silly. But at the time I've just had it up to here."

And Gloria pauses a bit, relaxes, and responds, "You know, you're right … There were a lot of little incidents last week. So yesterday, I suspect, everything overflowed. I just flew off the handle. The issue we were talking about wasn't that important in itself."

Sharing something of your own experience in order to foster mutual understanding keeps you from sounding like a counsellor. Those who are close to you don't usually want a counsellor, but they still want to be understood.

Often enough, simple gestures can convey your understanding. Ethan is at a party with Luna, his wife. They have gone their separate ways, mingling with the crowd. A little later, Ethan glances across the room and sees his wife pinned down, as it were, by an enormous bore. She happens to look his way. Ethan's nonverbal response to her is subtle but unmistakable.

It says something like this: "I see you're caught. It's obvious you're not enjoying your encounter. I'll get over there as soon as I can."

If your relationship with someone is itself empathic, one characterised by closeness, respect, and understanding, there is less of a need to feedback highlights explicitly. Even in these relationships, however, when things get tense, feeding back highlights more explicitly and perhaps with greater frequency can help take the edge off the conversation.

e. Taking communication apart to put it back together

A critic might say, "Come on. Isn't it enough to say something like this: ‘First, it's important to be a good listener and understand the other person's key points. Second, it's important to find some way of letting your partner know that you've understood what he or she has said.’ But all this detail. Is it necessary? Why make things more complicated than they are? I don't have to take a car apart in order to be a good driver.

"For instance, what's all this nonsense about ‘processing’? I never heard of that before. If it were important, I'd know something about it by now. What you're doing is taking something that is fundamentally rather simple - one human being talking to another human being - and making it complicated because that's what academics do. That's how they make their living. Then they argue with one another."

Well, our critic may have something there. Life can get complicated enough without complicating it further - and needlessly. However, the intention is not to complicate the communication process, but to take it apart in order to understand it better. This is especially important for those who are in communication-intensive jobs. But it’s also important for anyone who wants to be a better communicator in his, or her, daily life.

Actual ‘processing’ is not as clumsy and burdensome as it seems when it’s taken apart. Effective Understanders do it almost automatically. But the same is true of effective golfers. Their route to effectiveness, however, often includes ‘taking apart’ and analysing their swing and they way they line up the hole when they are putting. When, after a lot of practice, golfers become good at all the details that make for a good golfer, they no longer need to take things apart. At least, not until they fall into bad habits once more.

So, if you want to get better at either of the skills discussed in this chapter - listening well and communicating highlights at the service of mutual understanding - then taking a look at the ‘anatomy’ of the skills is not a bad idea. Doctors do it. Dentists do it. Lots of professionals do it. Amateur golfers do it. Why not communicators? After all, communication is more important than golf for everyone, even golfers.

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