Organizational Consultation XXII: Empowerment (Part Two)
Although most people paraphrase far too little, it is possible to do it too much. If you paraphrase almost everything a speaker says, she may become annoyed at your unwillingness to assume that you understand even simple, obvious points. Or she may begin to suspect that you are trying to put words in her mouth, trying to suggest what she should mean. If you paraphrase continually, the other person may see it as your way of avoiding revealing your own opinions. She is the only one sharing ideas and exposing her opinions. You only paraphrase. At first, the other person may interpret your responses as indicating attentive listening, and she may respond favorably to your interest. Gradually, however, she becomes aware that while you are learning much about her, she is learning nothing about you; and she begins to feel vulnerable, then distrusting and resentful of you.
Frequent paraphrasing seems especially appropriate to two general group conditions. First, when mistakes might be costly, accuracy of communication becomes more important. To assume understanding rather than checking it out under such a condition is to risk grave consequences. Second, strong feelings in the sender or the receiver increase the probability that comments will be misunderstood. Strong feelings have the effect on human communication that static has on electronic communication. They distort or obscure parts of the message. In such cases, paraphrasing becomes crucial as a way of insuring that the message comes through as intended.
The best way to manage conflict may be by trying to avoid it, through use of appreciative strategies at each stage in the group’s development. While most groups can’t avoid the storming stage in its development, the group can ensure that this stage is constructive and relatively short-lived. This rapid and productive movement through the storming stage can be done by avoiding the dominance of personal agenda during meetings and by giving each person ample, but not excessive, time to voice her opinion. It can also be done in an appreciative manner by focusing on those moments when the group is working effectively, and by seeking to replicate these dynamic processes when the group encounters conflict. Let me offer more specifically advice, particularly with regard to preparation for and conducting successful and appreciative meetings.
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