4.7 Summarising For Clarity And Understanding

How do you know for certain that you have captured the main points of the conversation? From the Understander's point of view, ‘checking understanding’ is a crucial part of the game. It’s done, mainly, by sharing selective highlights throughout the conversation, but there are practices to consider. One is to summarise what you’ve understood and ask the Explainer/Teller to comment on its accuracy and completeness. Another is to ask the Explainer/Teller to summarise, and then to compare this with what you have in your own mind.

a. Providing summaries

Some conversations can get quite complicated. So it helps the dialogue if Understanders pull the threads of the story, message, point of view, or case together and replay it as a summary to check understanding. Here's an example. Christopher, a college student, is talking with his father about possible changes in his college programme.

At one point the father says, "Let me see if I've heard you right. You said that you want to change your course, from chemistry to psychology. But this means that you'd have to take re-take your first year. But you're not sure that this is what you want to do. You’re not sure if you even have the interest to finish a chemistry degree. And last, but maybe not least, you're worried about how your mum and I would feel about all of this."

Even though the father has been feeding back selected highlights during the conversation, it’s helpful to check that the same picture is in both their minds. If he is accurate, he provides a good platform for further dialogue about the issues involved such as added educational costs.

Providing summaries works with stories, messages, points of view, and cases. Let’s look at some examples of each:

With stories

Mildred has been telling her older brother, Dorian, a story about what led up to her having a falling out with her best friend, Antonia. The two young women are in college. Dorian has already graduated. During the conversation with his sister, Dorian has fed back highlights and asked a few questions.

Finally, he says, "It seems that three things contributed to the falling out. First of all, she resented your spending time with her boyfriend, Stanley, even though, as you say, ‘there was nothing to it’. Second, Antonia announces that she is switching study partners, giving as the reason that the two of you are ’too much alike’. And third, you and she got into a shouting match at a planning meeting for college dance over what kind of music would work best — something that embarrassed both of you."

Mildred pauses. Then, looking a bit chastened, she says, "When you spell it out like that, it all sounds rather trivial. You know, like spoiled kids."

The two of them move on to problem-solving mode, looking for ways for her to get back together with Antonia.

With messages

You're talking with Ursula about her decision to move to a ‘quieter’ place in the suburbs. As she says, "It's semi-rural and there's something very attractive about the countryside atmosphere.” As she talks through her decision, the reasons for it, and the implications for herself and others, you feed back highlights and ask a few questions.

At one point you say, "Let's see if I've got this straight. Commuting will chew up a lot more of your time. In fact, it adds up to almost fifteen hours per week. To get around to see family and friends you'll be using your car a lot more. Your car's not quite had it, but it's seen its day. You might have to get a new one. And you're probably trading off some of your social life for a bit of ‘rural peace’. It'll be harder for your friends to get to see you at weekends… . How's all this stacking up?"

The two of you go on to tweeze out other implications, which have been glossed over. In this case your summary highlights the fact that Ursula has done an incomplete job in spelling out the implications of her decision. Furthermore, she hasn't looked at other options. A quieter part of the city might make more sense than either the ‘dull’ suburbs or, a ‘charming’ rural spot.

With points of view

Inez and Jude have been discussing their perspectives on individual, and personal, freedom and its place in society. Jude has been emphasising its critical role in democracies, while Inez has focused more on its limitations, even its dangers. At one point, Jude tries to pull together some of the main points Inez is making.

He says, "You're reasoning seems to go something like this. Since most countries of the world have group-focused, rather than individual-focused cultures, those of us who live in individual-focused cultures don't easily see the advantage of certain restrictions on individual freedom for the sake of the community. We even condemn countries who impose these limitations. Second, we don't see how overemphasis on personal freedom can lead to “I-can-do-anything-I-want” subcultures that end up interfering with the freedom of others. Third, when people who say in effect, “I-can-do-anything-I-want” add, in practice, the sentiment, “But if I do get into trouble, you have to rescue me,” we almost institutionalise unfairness. At least these are the three points that have made the most impact on me. Heavy stuff. And I'm not completely sure that I'm doing justice to your argument."

Since their conversation is dealing with some rather serious issues, Jude wants to make sure that he's on track. His last sentence invites Inez back into the dialogue.

Trading points of view too often ends up in an argument of the I'm-right-and-you're-wrong variety. If you use the principles of effective dialogue, you can end up with a discussion, however emotional, rather than a fight. And, instead of ‘winning’, you're learning.

When making the case

Ariana has been talking with you about her desire to form what she calls the ‘Young Professionals Club’. You both live in a relatively small town. She wants to enlist your help. Since her argument is fragmented, you think it might be helpful try to pull things together. You use the CRITIC categories to do so.

Your summary sounds something like this, "So, let me recap. You'd pull together a group to establish a Young Professionals Club, which would have both, a professional development, and a social, focus. The main reason for this is to establish a network of younger people with a ‘larger world’, rather than a ‘small town’, mentality. People here would be interested precisely because they could engage in activities that are usually found in cities, such as business projects that call for cross-professional teams.

"You'd like to float the idea in town and let it simmer for a while. This will give others a chance to throw ideas about its charter and development into the pot. But this would be a big project for you. You'd need plenty of help. There would be the excitement of the project itself and, of course, the benefits that all members would have. And, if I heard you right, the shape the club would take, is open."

This gives Ariana a chance to see the whole thing in thumbnail form. It also gives her the opportunity to correct any parts that you may have gotten wrong. Finally, it gives her a chance to review and change parts of her plan that now don't seem right to her.

b. Asking the Explainer/Teller to summarise

You can also ask the person in the E/T role to give you a summary. Let's go back to the getting directions example. We've already seen that one way of creating accurate understanding is to have the Teller ask the person who needs the directions for a summary. You can also ask the person providing directions for a summary. For instance, you're driving in a city you are visiting for the first time. You get lost. A very gracious gentleman is giving you directions to your destination, but, again, they are a bit complicated.

Instead of thanking him and going on your way, only to have to stop again and get further directions, you say, "I know I have to make four turns. But I want to be sure which way to turn each time. Would you mind running them by me once more?"

As long you've been paying attention and doing your best to feed back a highlight or two, asking for a short replay is likely to be interpreted benignly.

If your conversational partner has been describing his rather tortured relationship with his second wife, he may want merely a sympathetic ear. He wants your basic understanding here and now, but there is no expectation on his part that you have to do anything with the information. Summarising in this case would be out of place.

However, if your spouse is telling you what needs to be included in the letter for the bank loan officer, you might say something like this: "Could you run the main points by me once more. They are a little more complicated than I thought they would be. I want to get them totally clear in my mind. In fact, I'd better jot them down."

Asking Tellers for summarises can help them organise their thoughts more constructively, especially if the subject is complicated, or the telling has been somewhat disjointed. Let's say your brother-in-law has been talking to you about an involved business scheme. He wants to get your views on it.

When you ask him to summarise se the main points, he laughs and replies, "I will if I can… In fact, this will probably help me put all of it in some kind of order. The main thrust of this venture is …"

Asking for a summary is much better than saying something flip such as, "I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about." However, phrases such as, "I'm a bit lost," or. "I've actually forgotten the first point you made" or "Can we retrace our steps?" can produce the kind of clarity you both need.

The ideal, of course, is for the Teller to be clear in the first place and for the Understander to feed back highlights and ask questions throughout the discussion. That is, the ideal is dialogue. But since this doesn't always happen, getting things straight through summaries can make up for imperfect dialogue.

c. Using summaries to help Explainer/Tellers move on

Summaries are also a useful way of moving a conversation along. If you feel that the Teller is rambling or giving too much detail, combine a summary with a request for more information. This is polite way of saying: "I've got it! Let's move on."

Here's an example.

Conan and Lucinda have been talking about the details of a school car boot sale they are helping to set up. Conan keeps talking about the disputes that have arisen among those working on the project.

So Lucinda finally says, "I agree that there are some petty politics at play here. Four different school organisations would like to get more than their share of the proceeds. For instance, the day-care group is being especially aggressive. Of course, since this is a school affair, no one would ever admit that politics is a factor. So how can we develop a formula for dividing up the spoils fairly and find a way of getting everyone's commitment to it?"

Simply complaining about school politics isn't getting them anywhere. Lucinda provides a brief summary plus a request to move into problem-solving as the way forward.

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