Have you been in a meeting where arguments are being repeated with increasing vehemence?

Have you seen it escalate into personal attack or defence?

When people know that they have been heard. It can have the most remarkable calming effect

Sarah Barber talks about the impact that summarising can have and explains how to do it well.

What is summarising?

Summarising is a concise restatement of what has gone before.

It is one of the communication behaviours highlighted by Professor Neil Rackham as characteristic of highly effective teams. In his model, it is a “green” or “pull” behaviour because it is focused on the thoughts and words of others, rather than the speaker’s own thoughts. Good summarising only becomes possible after good listening.

Why summarise?

  1. Keeping disagreement constructive:

    Have you been in a meeting where arguments are being repeated with increasing vehemence?

    Have you seen it escalate into personal attack or defence – a Rackham “red”  behaviour that is to be avoided?

    When people hear a summary of what they have just said, they know that they have been heard. It can have the most remarkable calming effect. This is especially true when opposing views in a disagreement are restated by those on the receiving end of them.

  2. Creating a common understanding

    Rackham’s research found that that “when Testing Understanding and Summarising drops below 10% [in a meeting], more misunderstandings occurs, and confusion increases about what happened and what decisions were made”.

    Having a common understanding is important if a team are to make progress on actions between meetings.

    You might choose to use a flipchart (or in virtual meetings the chatbox) to write down the summary. This keeps it visible to everyone and increases the chances of maintaining the understanding reached.

  3. Bringing clarity that “unsticks”

    A good summary can help teams gain the clarity that allows them to move forward. It might expose points of disagreement, which others might be able to help resolve or which the team can agree to live with.

    It might become clear that information is missing that the team need to go away and gather. Or it might reveal that the team is ready to move from discussion to action by offering some concrete proposals about a course of action.

How to do summarising well

  1. Playback don’t paraphrase

    As coaches of both teams and individuals, we at red10 have learned that it is much better to use people’s own words when summarising what has been said.

    Paraphrasing might be a good way to test your understanding of the other person. But paraphrasing has pitfalls – as described by Nancy Kline in her book “Time to Think”. One of these is the hidden implication that we believe we can improve on what someone else has said, rather than believing that the best wording is their own.

    Paraphrasing also risks breaking ‘rapport’ – a packed psychological term neatly summarised as being in ‘sync’ with each other. E.g. if one person says “hypothesis” and the other replaces this word with “theory” – it might mean something different that causes unnecessary friction in the original speaker.

    So, when you are summarising, it is important to show others that you have heard their words and are reflecting them back. This is why we use the definition “restates earlier contributions in compact form”.  At the very least, make sure that key words used by the original contributor are included in your summary.

  2.  Practise

    You have probably met people who seem to be extraordinarily good at summarising. They were not born that way!

    Summarising is a high-level skill which has to be learned and developed. Practise listening attentively to someone and repeating back exactly what they have just said.

    In meetings, try asking “Can I have a go at summarising?” If you are willing to get it wrong and try again you will learn faster. And the willingness to have a go will inspire others to have a go too. It won’t be perfect first time, just keep at it.

    Rackham encourages teams to play the Summarising Game where:

    • Before they are allowed to share their own view, they have to summarise the previous speaker’s contribution.
    • The previous speaker gives them a score for accuracy.
  3. Summarise regularly and often

    High performing teams know that it is important to summarise frequently and not just at the end of the meeting.

    Whilst your team is learning, it could be useful to develop a “team norm” which is an agreement about who will summarise at what points in the meeting. Adding structure like this helps a new behaviour to become a habit.

To summarise…

Summarising is hard to learn but so effective when done well.

Try adding the skill to your repertoire and see the impact on your meetings – we would love to hear how you get on.