The power of summarization

I’ve known my husband for nearly twenty years. We can finish each other’s sentences, read each other’s nonverbals in a nanosecond, and talk with each other more than probably any other person we know. And yet we still manage to miscommunicate fairly often. Communication is hard! We can’t crawl into each other’s minds and read what we see there. We have to make inferences. The problem is that we usually make assumptions and often don’t test their validity. This is how “But I thought we agreed…” and “I forgot we talked about that…” happens.

If communication with well-known others is ripe for errors, it’s even trickier with people we know less well. Communication break-downs at work are commonplace and are the cause of considerable frustration and lost productivity. We’ve talked before about how crucial good listening is for countless reason. One specific aspect of quality communication is summarizing. Summarizing is what it sounds like – reflecting back what has been said in a condensed form. It sounds simple, but it’s often underused, and it packs a powerful punch. It is even useful when it comes to internal “self talk.” Consider the following benefits of summarizing:

  • Enhances memory. According to this study, the simple act of saying something aloud facilitates memory. When you read or hear something, you encode it in your memory. By summarizing it back to the person or repeating it aloud to yourself, you encode it again through a secondary process, consolidating it in your memory.
  • Ensures mutual clarity. Our minds are adept at sorting a lot of information very quickly, and we do this by using filters that determine what we should pay attention to and what can safely be disregarded. The problem is we all have different filters, so people in the same conversation can come away with very different ideas of what happened. Summarizing ensures you’re on the same page.
  • Extracts key themes. The process of distilling a conversation’s worth of information into a brief recap helps you get to the most important ideas or details. This allows you to arrive at agreed-upon priorities, which in turn…
  • Strengthens commitments. Whether you’re talking to yourself or with someone else, summarizing your intentions out loud increases your attention and reinforces your commitment to your actions and goals.

For leaders and managers focused on developing their coaching skills, summarization is key. Having the individual summarize the coaching conversation ensures mutual clarity and promotes accountability. Whether you’re coaching, making weekend plans, or leading strategic planning meetings, making summarizing a habit can improve your conversations, relationships, and outcomes.


“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” –Albert Einstein