How to listen better by parroting and paraphrasing

How to listen better by parroting and paraphrasing

There’s a huge problem with how we listen.

If you tell someone your email, they usually repeat it to make sure they heard it correctly. This happens in radio communication or when sharing a string of numbers.

But if you tell someone a more complex statement, they usually agree or disagree without checking what you mean.

This is why most people make assumptions from what they hear and often misinterpret what is being said.

The key to becoming a better listener is by parroting, paraphrasing, and doing a simple perception check.

Listening as a skill

Listening isn’t passive. It’s a skill we develop. It happens as we clear our thoughts and really focus on what’s being said.

Since we don’t know others’ thoughts, emotions, wants and intentions, we are left to guess what the other person means by their words and non-verbal expressions. 

Parroting and paraphrasing help to us to learn better by repeating or paraphrasing what was said, but sometimes we need to do a little more.

In this article, I’ll share three ways to be a better listener by parroting and paraphrasing.

Active vs Passive listening

Listening is an active process. It involves a speaker who presents information and a listener who seeks to understand the information presented.

When we actively listen we don’t just hear what’s being said, we hearken. In Chinese, hearken literally means to “hear with power.”

When we hearken, we clear our thoughts and communicate what was said.

When the listener is passive, they may hear the message, but they don’t communicate what was said. This is how the message can easily become lost in translation.

Listening is a critical component of the communication process.  Too often people believe listening is hearing, when in fact, listening is repeating or paraphrasing the message. It’s also asking questions so we fully understand the intent. That’s how we listen with power.

Listening by Parroting

Parroting is when we listen to be able to repeat exactly what was said. This happens often when the message might be life or death.

For example, a rock climber may parrot what the belayer said to confirm it’s safe to climb. This also happens when you order food. After ordering your food, the waiter will repeat the order back to you to make sure it’s correct.

This also happens with airline pilots. When the air traffic controller tells the pilot he is safe to land, the pilot will repeat the message and confirm he is landing.

Parroting is important for situations as mentioned above, but it doesn’t always work in our daily conversations, and that’s why it’s important to learn how to paraphrase.

Listening by paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is when we listen and paraphrase what was said. We do this on a daily basis when the boss gives us instructions on how to complete a project and we paraphrase the details of the project.

If you’ve ever watched a political debate you may have noticed that both parties rarely listen to each other because they never paraphrase what was said.

Instead, they usually argue why their opinion is better.

This happens quite often when arguments get heated and is why paraphrasing is such a good skill to develop so you can remain calm, listen, and clarify the intentions of others.

According to Professor John Wallen, “Paraphrasing is any way of revealing your understanding of the other person’s comment in order to test your understanding.

An additional benefit of paraphrasing is that it lets the other know that you are interested…It is evidence that you do want to understand.”

“Effective paraphrasing is not a trick or verbal gimmick. It comes from an attitude, a desire to know what the other means.”

Paraphrase Plus (perception check)

Paraphrase Plus is when we listen by paraphrasing what was said and check to see if we got it right. When we do this we are clarifying what was said by doing a perception check.

Read the example below.

So you’re saying that you’re not upset I didn’t make dinner. You’re just hungry. Is that right?

Notice how the message is paraphrased and the perception check of “Is that right?”

When we use paraphrase plus, we clarify what was said and try to understand the other person’s intent.


The three listening skills listed above provide us with methods to assist in understanding the meanings and intents of others.  Everything that we hear and observe is subject to our interpretation.  

Too often, we don’t understand but tell others that we do by assuming their intentions. When we assume our understanding is correct, we rely on our interpretation of what we observed or heard.  

To develop your skill in understanding others Wallen teaches us to

  1. Show that you are interested in understanding what they mean
  2. Reveal what their statements mean to you. 
  3. Find out what responses are helpful ways of paraphrasing for you.

The next time you’re in conflict and feel anger or criticism, try to paraphrase until your understanding is conveyed as it was intended.


John L. Wallen (1968), Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, Oregon

Walking the Empowerment Tightrope: Balancing Management Authority& Employee Influence, Robert P. Crosby, HRDG, King of Prussia, PA, appendix G

LIOS, The Leadership Institute of Seattle, founded by Bob Crosby in 1969

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