Awareness Workshop – Rephrasing

In my past posts, I have explored a few topics that I believe one should cover in such a workshop. All of these topics have involved training speakers to adjust to their audience -adjusting their speed, avoiding overly idiomatic language, and being careful of cultural references.

Today I’d like to look at another skill that should become part of any training session focused on Raising Language Awareness with Native Speakers:

Rephrasing

A good international communicators checks for understanding often, without offending his or her counter-part.

If you assume that you have understood your listener or that your listener has understood you, you may run into problems very quickly in an international environment. Unfortunately, you may not realize it until much later – at which time it becomes much more difficult to clear up any misunderstandings.

There are many ways in which one can check for understanding, but I believe that rephrasing should be covered in depth in our hypothetical workshop with native speakers.

Let’s look at a typical example of rephrasing in a conversation between an American native speaker (NS) and a Polish non-native speaker. (NNS) Hopefully, this will help explain exactly what I mean by the term rephrasing.

NS: “So our logistics center is uhmm… yah…. well…. they’ve got so many things on their plate at the moment that they’re really stressing in trying to keep up with all the orders.”

NNS:So… you mean that they are really busy at the moment?”

NS: Yah exactly. In the summer they tend to get really busy.”

The Polish speaker in this conversation used the strategy of rephrasing to check that he understood his American coworker correctly. His “So you mean that….” is a simple connecting phrase that allows him to repeat what he thought he had just heard in order to check his understanding. Notice he is using a simpler group of words in his sentence as he rephrases the main meaning of the message. Normally this is simply a quick check – nothing more, nothing less.

This idea of rephrasing is nothing new – it is often discussed in communication handbooks and workshops. There is a very good chance that English language learners have practiced rephrasing in their language courses. What about the native English speakers out there?

If they are like most of us, they may unconsciously  rephrase while checking for understanding – some people are naturally better communicators and may be “rephrasing experts” without even knowing it. International travel and experience tends to be another wonderful teacher of how to rephrase.

However, there are many of us who do not rephrase enough – So if you’re designing a workshop for Raising Language Awareness, give your participants as many rephrasing examples as possible. It can be as simple as repeating a message using another set of words.

Some typical rephrasing language starters:

  • So you mean that …
  • What you’re saying is …
  • If I understood correctly, ….
  • Let me just check I understand, …
  • So you believe that …
  • I think what we’re trying to say is that …
  • In other words …
  • Interesting. So what you mean is that …

It should be noted that one needs to be sensitive and not offend the partner across the table, as some individuals and some cultures may see excessive clarification as a challenge – if this is the case one should add as many positive softeners as possible around the message. One might even wish to highlight the fact that a lot of rephrasing will be going on in the meeting in order to help facilitate communication.

A native speaker who rephrases often will be highly praised by his or her international colleagues as a good communicator and somebody who is not “difficult to understand”. That’s something we’d all like to hear, and something that can save a company both time & money!

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