Restatements and Summaries
Restatements are a repeating or paraphrasing of the content or meaning of what a client has said (see Exhibit 8.1). Restatements typically contain fewer but similar words as the client’s, are more concrete and clear than the client’s statement, can
be phrased either tentatively (e.g., “So you seem to be saying that maybe you were a little bit late?”) or more directly (e.g., “You were late”), and refer to things the client just said or to things the client said earlier in the session or treatment.
E XHIB IT 8 . 1 Overview of Restatement
Summaries, a kind of restatement, tie together several ideas or pick out the highlights and general themes of the content expressed by the client. Summaries do not go beyond what the client has said or delve into the reasons for feelings or behaviors (these would be interpretations; see Chapter 13) but rather consolidate what has been said. For example, after listening for several minutes, the helper might say to an adolescent:
So here’s what I think we’ve learned so far. You have a strong reaction when your parents are intrusive. They barge in your room without knocking and give you no privacy. You feel like they don’t listen to you. And then you start acting annoyed and shut them out.
RATIONALE FOR USING RESTATEMENTS AND SUMMARIES The use of restatement goes back to Rogers (1942), who believed that helpers need to be mirrors or sounding boards, enabling clients to hear what they are saying without judgment. Thinking about one’s problems alone is often difficult because one can get blocked or stuck, may not have enough time or energy to examine problems thoroughly, may rationalize behaviors, or may give up and quit trying. Having another person who listens and serves as a mirror of the content offers
clients a golden opportunity to hear themselves think. Given that clients often feel confused, conflicted, or overwhelmed by their
problems, hearing accurate restatements allows them to gain feedback about how their concerns sound to others. It is important that clients hear back what they have said, so they can evaluate what they are thinking, add things they have forgotten, think about whether they actually believe what they have said, and think about things at a deeper level. Because statements often sound different when repeated by someone else, restatements allow clients to ponder what they really think. Restatements can also enable clients to clarify matters, explore aspects of the problem more thoroughly, and think about aspects they had not considered before. Just taking the time to think through a problem carefully with the benefit of an interested listener can lead to new understanding. In fact, with relatively healthy clients who are trying to understand major problems or make decisions, helpers might never need to go beyond this type of intervention because these clients only need an opportunity to hear what they are thinking.
The helper typically uses restatements to reflect on new thoughts as they arise. Successive approximations enable the helper to help the client get closer to what he or she is trying to say. So the first things out of the client’s mouth may sound confused, but after a few times trying with the help of gentle restatements, the client is often better able to express what she or he is thinking.
An additional reason that helpers use restatements is to put their listening into words and to play an active role in the helping process. Rather than assuming they have understood what clients have said, helpers use restatements to check out the accuracy of what they think they have heard. Having to listen to clients and summarize their words in fewer and more concise terms requires that helpers attend carefully and determine the key components of what clients have revealed. Saying “I understand how you feel” or asking questions can be easy but does not convey any actual understanding; restating what the client has said is much harder and requires that helpers not only listen but also struggle to understand enough of what clients have said so they can restate the essence of their messages. Although at first it may seem that restatements are a passive mode of responding, helpers are actively engaged in trying to capture the essence of clients’ experiences and paraphrase it back for clients to hear. It is actually quite hard to figure out what people are saying given that they often are not completely sure what they are thinking and so cannot articulate it clearly.
Restatements and summaries are most appropriate to use when clients are talking cognitively about their problems (i.e., are trying to explain a situation or thought, trying to sort out what they are actually thinking) rather than when they are actively exploring emotions. Interestingly, although helpers are typically oriented more toward working with emotions, clients spend most of their time talking about thoughts and narratives, and some do not like to or cannot engage at an emotional level, so being able to engage with clients at this level is important. Such clients like to analyze their thoughts about problems and might be threatened if asked to focus too much on feelings, especially early in a helping relationship.
As with restatements, helpers also use summaries to reassure clients that they have been listening and to check the accuracy of what they have been hearing. Summaries can be particularly useful when clients have finished talking about a particular issue or at the end of sessions as a way of helping clients reach a sense of closure regarding what has been explored. Summaries also can be helpful at the beginning of subsequent sessions to recap past sessions and provide a focus for the upcoming session if the client is not quite ready to talk. Not all clients want or need such summaries, especially if issues seem clear-cut to them, but summaries can be helpful when clients are diffuse or confused.
HOW TO RESTATE The goal of restatements is to enable clients to focus and to talk in more depth about an issue, as well as to assist clients in figuring out issues. Just restating what the client already knows would not help the client go deeper. Rather, helpers try to capture the “cutting edge” of what clients have revealed—what clients are most uncertain about, what is still unexplored, or what is not completely understood. A student used a metaphor of Wayne Gretzky, a star hockey player, saying that it is important in hockey to go to where the puck is going, not where it has been. Helpers, then, should pick out a salient message or an issue that clients are uncertain about to facilitate further exploration on this issue.
Clues for determining what is valuable to restate can be gathered by attending to what the client focuses on most, what the client seems to have the most involvement in talking about, what the client seems to have questions or conflicts about, and what is left unresolved. Attention to nonverbal messages (e.g., vocal quality might indicate that the client is deeply engaged in what he or she is talking about) can also assist helpers in determining the salient content of the client’s message.
Helpers sometimes worry that selecting an important part of the client’s statement requires a judgment call and removes them from a client-centered approach to helping. I would argue that restatements in fact allow helpers to stay within a client-centered approach because they are trying to use their empathic skills to figure out the most important aspect of the message for the client. Helpers have to listen to clients at a deep level to hear what clients are most concerned about. The attitude of being client-centered is thus important in formulating restatements.
Beginning trainees often think they need to capture everything the client has said, but capturing everything not only would be impossible but would probably be counterproductive. The focus would shift from the client to the helper because the repeating would take too much time. The momentum would be lost in the session. The client would be put in a position of trying to remember everything he or she said to determine whether the helper repeated everything accurately. In contrast, an effective restatement keeps the focus on the client and is almost unnoticeable in subtly guiding and encouraging the client to keep talking. Focusing on one piece of
an issue at a time is important to allow clients the opportunity to delve deeply into a concern. Helpers can return later to other aspects of the problem after one part is explored thoroughly.
Restatements are generally shorter and more concise than clients’ statements, focusing on important material rather than repeating everything verbatim. For example, if the client has been talking at some length about the many things that have been getting in the way of studying, the helper might give a restatement such as, “So you have not been able to study lately” or “Studying has been difficult for you lately,” because these statements focus on what is important for the client to explore at a deeper level. A restatement essentially orients the client to what the helper wants him or her to talk about.
The emphasis of restatements typically is on the client’s thoughts rather than on other people’s thoughts. This focus enables the client to focus inwardly rather than blaming others or worrying about what others think. For example, Janet was discussing her decision to move to the West Coast. During the session, she continuously focused on her colleagues’ and friends’ reactions to her decision. The helper worked to focus the restatements on Janet (“You would like to move”) rather than on her friends and colleagues (“Your friends don’t want you to move”).
The emphasis is on helping clients explore more deeply without having an agenda for what content should emerge. Helpers work to be nonjudgmental and do not assume they know or understand what clients are experiencing but rather take the stance of helping the client explore whatever emerges. Helpers are not invested in solving problems or disclosing their own problems but are focused on facilitating client exploration.
To reduce the tendency to become repetitive, helpers can vary the format of restatements. There are several ways to introduce restatements, for example:
“I hear you saying . . . ” “It sounds as though . . . ” “You’re saying that . . . ” “So . . . ” “What you seem to be saying . . . ” “If I’m hearing you accurately, . . . ” “Let me see if I got what you’re saying . . . ” “I’m not sure I got that completely, let me try to summarize and see if I got it . . . ”
Alternatively, helpers can just repeat and slightly draw out a key word a client has said, such as divorce, music, or headache. If the key word is presented in a questioning or inviting tone, it encourages the client to tell the helper more about the topic. For example, if a client has been talking about her daughter having just been tested and found to have an incredibly high IQ score, and the helper wants the client to explore more about IQs, she might simply say, “IQ . . . ?,” thereby inviting the client to tell her more about what IQ means to her.
Although it is typically helpful when restatements are relatively close to what
the client has said, it is not necessary (or often even possible) for the restatements to be perfectly accurate. For example, if a client presents a confused and jumbled statement of her of his concerns and the helper provides restatements that do not encapsulate the content accurately, the client can clarify what she or he means so both the client and helper can understand the situation better. Restatements thus allow clients a chance to clarify helpers’ mistaken impressions.
If your restatement or summary is totally wrong, that is not necessarily a disaster for the relationship (unless of course the helper has been dismissive, judgmental, or critical). One misstep does not undo the therapeutic relationship, as long as the helper demonstrates the willingness to keep listening to try to understand more.
EXAMPLE OF RESTATEMENTS The following shows a helper using restatements (in italics) in a session:
Client: I have to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I don’t really want to go because it’s the middle of my last semester in college and I’m worried that my grades will suffer if I leave for 2 weeks, but I don’t have much choice. According to my religion, I have to go.
Helper: You have to go. Client: Yeah, for my religion, we all have to do a pilgrimage before we get
married. It’s just expected. My father has to go with me because a man has to be on the pilgrimage, but I don’t have a very good relationship with him, and he’s not well, so I don’t know if he can withstand the rigors of the trip. The last time he went with my brother, it was pretty disastrous.
Helper: You said you don’t have a very good relationship with your father. Client: Right. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up. He was
always too busy. And now to spend 2 weeks with him is a lot. I don’t even know what we could talk about. I feel like I don’t know him. I get anxious just thinking about spending a lot of time with him. But on the other hand, I wish I knew him better, so maybe this is an opportunity to get to know him.
Helper: You wish you knew him better. Client: Yeah, really know him. I’ve always wanted to have a good relationship
with him. People say that we’re a lot alike. And he could teach me a lot about my religion and culture, things I don’t know much about, given that I came to the United States when I was very young.
Helper: So you could learn something from your father. Client: Oh, yeah, I think I could learn a lot from him. He is a wise person. I
just hope I can be myself with him. I’ve always felt like such a little kid, and I would rather feel like an adult with him the way I can with my mother.
Helper: Feel like an adult. Client: Yeah, I want to feel like myself when I am around him. I want to be
able to behave like I do with other people. I want to get to know him as a person instead of feeling afraid of him. (Client continues to explore.)
DIFFICULTIES HELPERS EXPERIENCE IN RESTATING Many helpers initially feel awkward and stilted using restatements because in everyday social communication people do not typically paraphrase what another person has said. Many beginning helpers worry that clients will feel annoyed and say something like “I just said that.” In fact, the reaction of clients is usually quite different when they are given a good restatement—they feel heard and are eager to explore more. Once students learn how to use restatements, they can be useful not only in helping relationships but also with friends and family to demonstrate that one is really listening.
Another difficulty beginning helpers face is sounding like parrots if they continually use the same format to introduce restatements (e.g., “I hear you saying . . . ”) or if they repeat clients’ messages verbatim. Clients often get annoyed with parroting and become distracted from focusing on their concerns. In a related vein, some helpers are so afraid of making a mistake when choosing key aspects of clients’ messages that they repeat everything, taking the focus off the client and halting the flow of the interchange.
Not surprisingly, clients quickly become bored and annoyed with such restatements, saying things like, “That’s what I just said.” Moreover, clients might feel stuck and aimless when restatements are mere repetitions of what they have said. By choosing the key components, focusing on the “cutting edge” of clients’ concerns, varying the format, and keeping the restatements short, helpers can deal with these problems. It is also important to focus on being empathic rather than restating robotically. Some helpers get so caught up in capturing the content accurately that they forget the most important thing is to show the client that they are struggling to hear and make sense of what the client is saying.
Some helpers feel frustrated when they use restatements because they feel they are not “doing” anything or giving the client specific answers. Restatements are used to help clients explore and tell their stories rather than come to insight or action, so helpers rarely feel brilliant when using them. In fact, clients often are not able to remember restatements because the focus is on them rather than on the helper.