Reflecting and Paraphrasing
Part of the ‘art of listening’ is making sure that the client knows their story is being listened to.
This is achieved by the helper/counsellor repeating back to the client parts of their story. This known as paraphrasing.
Reflecting is showing the client that you have ‘heard’ not only what is being said, but also what feelings and emotions the client is experiencing when sharing their story with you.
This is sometimes known in counselling ‘speak ‘as the music behind the words.
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It is like holding up a mirror to the client; repeating what they have said shows the client they have your full attention. It also allows the client to make sure you fully understood them; if not, they can correct you.
Reflecting and paraphrasing should not only contain what is being said but what emotion or feeling the client is expressing.
Let’s look at an example:
Client (Mohammed): My ex-wife phoned me yesterday; she told me that our daughter Nafiza (who is only 9) is very ill after a car accident. I am feeling very scared for her. They live in France, so I am going to have to travel to see her, and now I have been made redundant, I don’t know how I can afford to go.
Counsellor: So, Mohammed, you have had some bad news about your little girl, who has been involved in an accident. You are frightened for her and also have worries over money now you have lost your job.
Client: Yes, yes ... that’s right.
Notice that the counsellor does not offer advice or start asking how long Mohammed and his wife have been separated, but reflects the emotion of what is said: ‘frightened' and 'worries'.
Reflecting and paraphrasing are the first skills we learn as helpers, and they remain the most useful.
To build a trusting relationship with a helper, the client needs not only to be ‘listened to' but also to be heard and valued as a person.
"Reflecting and paraphrasing should not only contain what is being said but what emotion or feeling the client is expressing."
Definition of Reflection in Counselling
Reflection in counselling is like holding up a mirror: repeating the client’s words back to them exactly as they said them.
You might reflect back the whole sentence, or you might select a few words – or even one single word – from what the client has brought.
I often refer to reflection as ‘the lost skill’ because when I watch counselling students doing simulated skill sessions, or listen to their recordings from placement (where clients have consented to this), I seldom see reflection being used as a skill. This is a pity, as reflection can be very powerful.
When we use the skill of reflection, we are looking to match the tone, the feeling of the words, and the client’s facial expression or body language as they spoke.
For example, they might have hunched their shoulders as they said, ‘I was so scared; I didn’t know what to do.’
We might reflect that back by hunching our own shoulders, mirroring their body language while also saying ‘I felt so scared; I didn’t know what to do.’
Using Reflection to Clarify Our Understanding
We can also use reflection to clarify our understanding, instead of using a question.
For example, suppose the client says:
‘My husband and my father are fighting. I’m really angry with him.’
For me to be in the client’s frame of reference, I need to know whether ‘him’ refers to the husband or the father. So I might reflect back the word ‘him’ with a quizzical look.
The client might then respond:
‘Yeah, my dad. He really gets to me when he is non-accepting.’
So you can get clarification in this way. You can adjust where you are to make sure that the empathic bond is strong and that you are truly within the client’s frame of reference.
"When we use the skill of reflection, we are looking to match the tone, the feeling of the words, and the client’s facial expression or body language as they spoke".
Definition of Paraphrasing in Counselling
Paraphrasing is repeating back your understanding of the material that has been brought by the client, using your own words.
A paraphrase reflects the essence of what has been said.
We all use paraphrasing in our everyday lives. If you look at your studies to become a counsellor or psychotherapist, you paraphrase in class.
Maybe your lecturer brings a body of work, and you listen and make notes: you’re paraphrasing as you distill this down to what you feel is important.
How Paraphrasing Builds Empathy
How does paraphrasing affect the client-counsellor relationship?
First of all, it helps the client to feel both heard and understood. The client brings their material, daring to share that with you.
And you show that you’re listening by giving them a little portion of that back – the part that feels the most important. You paraphrase it down.
And if you do that accurately and correctly, and it matches where the client is, the client is going to recognise that and to feel heard: ‘Finally, somebody is there really listening, really understanding what it is that I am bringing.’
This keys right into empathy, because it’s about building that empathic relationship with the client. And empathy is not a one-way transaction.
..."Empathy [is] the ability to ‘perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the 'as if' conditions."
Carl Rogers (1959, pp. 210–211)
In other words, we walk in somebody’s shoes as if their reality is our reality – but of course it’s not our reality, and that’s where the ‘as if’ comes in.
I’ve heard this rather aptly described as ‘walking in the client’s shoes, but keeping our socks on’!
Empathy is a two-way transaction – that is, it’s not enough for us to be 100% in the client’s frame of reference, understanding their true feelings; the client must also perceive that we understand.
When the client feels at some level that they have been understood, then the empathy circle is complete.