The 6 Most Annoying Words In Communication

The best listening skill you will ever learn, and how it can go terribly wrong.
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00:02 so what i hear you saying is
00:04 in my mind these can be the most this is
00:08 maybe the most annoying phrase in all of
00:10 communications
00:11 right i often picture this like super
00:14 hippy way
00:15 way over the top sincere so what i hear
00:19 you saying
00:20 is and it just it just bugs him
00:24 but jesus out of me and it’s really
00:26 unfortunate because it’s a good phrase
00:28 and it is a uh an invaluable
00:33 technique in communication it’s like one
00:35 of the top
00:36 one of the top techniques you can use
00:39 and so i want to spend a couple minutes
00:41 talking about
00:42 why it’s so good why it can go so wrong
00:45 and some ways to avoid those pitfalls
00:49 so the the technique itself is called
00:51 reflecting and this is
00:53 uh reflecting comes in one of two
00:55 options
00:56 you’ve got repeating or
01:00 quoting some of a couple of words that
01:02 they say
01:03 or else paraphrasing the thing that
01:05 they’ve said
01:06 so you’re you’re taking something that
01:09 another person is saying
01:10 and in some way reflecting it back to
01:13 them
01:14 now this is so good because it
01:16 accomplishes the two goals
01:18 of listening and most people don’t know
01:20 those two there’s two goals of listening
01:22 this is
01:22 there’s like some weirdly big secret to
01:25 to listening skills right there’s the
01:26 the obvious goal
01:28 which is to get the content to get the
01:30 thing to understand
01:32 the words that somebody’s saying to you
01:35 and then there’s the second goal
01:37 big mystery goal uh which is to make the
01:40 other person
01:41 feel heard and that’s a really really
01:45 important aspect of listening this like
01:47 might be the best listening tip
01:49 anyone will ever give you right when
01:51 you’re listening the goal is to make
01:53 somebody feel
01:55 heard they often just don’t even if even
01:57 if you are
01:58 hearing them right if you’re sitting
02:00 back typing on your phone
02:01 and you can hear and understand every
02:03 single word they say and repeat it back
02:05 to them and
02:06 get the gist of it and all but if they
02:08 don’t feel like you’re listening
02:10 it doesn’t count and so saying to
02:12 somebody reflecting
02:13 back to them things that they’re saying
02:16 accomplishes both of those goals
02:17 it lets them know that you’ve understood
02:19 the content of what they’re saying that
02:21 their words aren’t being
02:22 lost on you and it makes them feel heard
02:26 so let me give you an example uh let’s
02:28 say that one of your friends comes up to
02:29 you and says yeah
02:30 my girlfriend broke up with me yesterday
02:32 um i’ve been kind of an asshole i get
02:35 why she said i get why she did it
02:38 and and so reflecting might look like
02:40 repeating or paraphrasing oh wow your
02:42 girlfriend broke up with you last night
02:45 now you you’re kind of a you’re kind of
02:47 an asshole
02:48 right that’s repeating and the reason we
02:50 do this is because we might have got it
02:52 wrong
02:52 uh if if we repeat back and say oh you
02:55 broke up with your girlfriend she was an
02:56 asshole no no
02:57 no sounds similar but no she broke up
02:59 with me
03:00 i was an asshole paraphrasing might be
03:04 um something like oh wow you broke my
03:07 girlfriend broke up with you i’m sorry
03:09 uh it sounds like maybe you
03:10 you kind of think you deserved it right
03:13 now my friend never said
03:14 i deserved it he said i was an asshole
03:16 but i’m kind of taking his words and
03:18 moving them into mine which sometimes
03:22 can can be a better way of demonstrating
03:24 that you’re really listening and
03:26 understanding it
03:28 the the key word quoting or the the
03:29 repeating is
03:31 one of the pitfalls when i first learned
03:34 this
03:35 uh it it bugged the crap out of me
03:38 because it sounded like people were just
03:40 parroting me back and and it was
03:42 annoying and it was like yes that’s
03:44 that’s what i’m saying
03:46 yes you heard it stop repeating me um
03:48 and that’s that’s
03:49 done unskillfully right better one is
03:52 not to repeat the whole thing
03:54 oh so your girlfriend broke up with you
03:56 because you think you were an asshole
03:58 right that’s the the the really annoying
04:01 way of doing it
04:03 is just repeat a couple of things this
04:05 is actually
04:07 this is an fbi negotiator tactic
04:10 that they teach this at school
04:13 negotiators will will often use the the
04:15 the trick is repeat the last three words
04:19 that the person said and it has this
04:21 remarkable ability to just
04:22 have them keep talking oh so
04:26 you were an asshole yeah well you know i
04:29 i kind of cheated on her and and i was
04:31 hanging out with some other girls
04:34 hanging out with some other girls yeah
04:35 well i met these girls go to the library
04:37 whatever um so just by repeating not not
04:40 the whole story but maybe just
04:43 a couple key words that they’ve said or
04:46 the last few words is a great way of of
04:49 letting them know that you’re
04:50 that you’re still listening and that
04:51 you’re already hearing what they’re
04:52 saying and understanding what they’re
04:53 saying
04:54 where this goes big time wrong is when
04:56 you repeat the whole story
04:58 and and the way the reason this goes
05:00 wrong is because it feels like
05:02 like people are like somebody’s doing
05:05 something to you like they’re
05:06 they’re running a technique
05:11 so what i hear you saying is that your
05:13 girlfriend broke up with you
05:15 and you think you’re an asshole because
05:18 you kind of cheated on her
05:20 because you met a couple of girls at the
05:21 library right that
05:23 it’s it’s like yes stop copying me
05:27 like stop doing that weird active
05:29 listening thing there’s there’s this
05:30 technique active listening it gets
05:32 taught
05:33 all over the place you may have seen it
05:34 in school or in business classes
05:36 and it’s great the technique itself is
05:39 it’s it’s trying to get people to feel
05:41 heard and to be understood
05:43 and if you if you repeat the whole thing
05:46 word for word for a long time
05:48 it’s like stop copying me um
05:52 the way to avoid this is to not only
05:55 not copy them and repeat the whole story
05:58 but to
05:59 use a couple other phrases it’s not just
06:01 so what i hear you saying is
06:03 it’s what i hear you saying is it’s what
06:05 i think you’re saying is
06:07 you can say um what i what i’m hearing
06:10 or what i think i’m hearing is or even
06:12 hey hang on i want to make sure i’m
06:14 getting you right
06:14 or this is a really good one in a
06:16 business situation hey
06:18 the thing you said just sounds really
06:20 important i’m going to repeat a little
06:21 bit back just to make sure i’m getting
06:22 you
06:23 i want to make sure i’m understanding
06:24 you is it this thing you said
06:27 and there’s all kinds of different ways
06:28 that you can you can use this technique
06:30 without using that specific phrase
06:32 over and over and over again which
06:33 starts to bug people
06:37 so that’s it please try this let me know
06:40 in the comments below
06:41 how it worked what phrase we used the
06:44 more we can help other people out figure
06:46 out
06:47 different ways of talking about this the
06:48 better so please take this and use it
06:51 this week and
06:52 have a great week

The 6 most annoying words in communication–in my opinion–are these: What I hear you saying is.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually love the phrase. It gets at one of the most important listening skills there is. But people who only know how to use this one thing butcher it so much that it gets to grating on my ears.

The Theory

There are 2 primary goals in listening to someone (the second one seems to be a big secret, so pay attention):

  1. To receive the content. The first and most obvious goal of listening someone is to hear them. To take in the words that they’re saying and to understand them.
  2. To make the speaker feel heard. This is arguable a more valuable goal. If you are looking at a book or your phone the whole time you’re listening to someone and they assume you’re not paying attention, it doesn’t matter how well you have received the content: it doesn’t count because they don’t feel heard. On the other hand you can completely miss the content and be so present with them that they really feel listened to, and the relationship will be better for it, not worse.

When someone says “So what I hear you saying is,” they’re accomplishing both of these goals. They’re confirming that (or if) they accurately understood the content you were trying to convey. And they are letting you know that they they are listening, hoping that you’ll feel heard.

So the idea behind this phrase is wonderful. Acknowledge the two goals of listening. Demonstrate that you care about both. Confirm that you are actually understanding the content. Everything about this is good.

The Technique

This technique is called Reflecting. It comes in one of two forms:

  1. Repeating – Repeat back a few words that the speaker just said. I recommend either a short phrase or a few of key words they spoke.
  2. Paraphrasing – You can repeat back to them in your own words what they said, instead of in their words.

If you reflect back to someone what they just said, a few things happen. First, they can confirm whether you understood them or not. This is especially useful in technical or sticky conversations.

Second, it lets the person know that you heard them correctly. They think a thing, you reflect a thing, they acknowledge. Now everyone knows that everyone knows. There is no confusion. And if there is a confusion, this provides the opportunity to clear it. Also, they often feel invited to speak more, so it helps keep the conversation moving along.

Third, sometimes hearing someone else say a thing lands inside us differently than when we say that thing ourselves, even if the words are the same. So if I say a thing and someone reflects it back to me, it’s like I’m hearing someone else say that thing, and sometimes I change my mind or get more clear on what I’m wanting to communicate.

Finally, it shows the person we’re listening to that we care. We care enough check that we’re actually understanding them, that we’re still with them, and that we want them to continue talking (not just butt in with our own thing).

When done properly, reflecting can be a powerful way to build trust, rapport, and ease quickly. It is an invaluable technique, one of the foundational practices in communications skills.

The Problem

The problem with this technique is that can be extremely annoying!

If done unskillfully, it can feel formal, patronizing, and downright irritating. This skill is often taught in this way:

“Just say the phrase ‘so what I hear you saying is’ and then repeat what they said.”

So people to that. Over and over again. And after a few rounds of that, it stops feeling relational and warm, and it feels like they’re mocking you with false sincerity.

“So what I hear you saying is that you went to the grocery store and the woman in front of you dropped her purse, and you helped her gather it all up, and she gave you a hug which really surprised you and felt warm?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying, STOP COPYING ME!”

The Fix

The problem is not with the technique, it’s in the execution. Here are some fixes to make sure you don’t fall into this trap.

  • Paraphrase the story. “So what I hear you saying is that you really enjoyed a hug from a stranger, even thought you weren’t expecting it?”
  • Rather than repeating the whole story, repeat just a couple words. “You helped her pick up her purse and she gave you a hug?” You don’t even need the lead-in phrase. This is especially good if you want the person to keep talking. Pro tip from an FBI Negotiator: repeat only the last 3 words they said. That does wonders in demonstrating interest and encouraging people to keep talking.
  • Use another phrase. “What I hear you saying” is fine, but if that’s the only thing you say then it makes people feel like you’re running a technique on them rather than really listening. Here are some others:
    • What I hear you saying is…
    • What I’m hearing is…
    • What I think I’m hearing is…
    • Wait a second, so…
    • Hang on, I want to make sure I’m getting you…
    • Hold on a second, I want to make sure I understand…
    • That sounds really important, I want to make sure I don’t miss it. Is it…

1 comment

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  • Great distinction Tim. Yeah that drives me crazy too. I usually just say, “lemme see if I got it….”
    Thanks!

Tim has been practicing and teaching interpersonal relations and communications skills since 2006. He leads the esteemed Boulder T-Group community and has taught circling and relational leadership for the Integral Center and C4 Institute.

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