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So, Just to Sum That Up: Summarize and Understand Summaries More Effectively

Friday February 4, 2022

TL;DR: Summaries are a troubling subject to moi lately. So let me dig into what I’m thinking about that.

Summarizing: What’s Actually Being Communicated When We’re Doing It

When we summarize, this very interesting messaging sub-channel is opened up. If you know to look for it, you can use it to your advantage.

Below I’ve listed some possible thoughts that open the sub-channel. At the top of the list, more & sloppier summarizing is happening:

  • (I am summarizing your stuff because….) I really disrespect you and your ideas
  • …You always say this
  • …I am pretty sure I’ve heard this before, maybe even from you
  • …I’m completely out of energy and can’t get into this
  • …I can’t devote a reasonable amount of time to thinking about this right now
  • …I don’t think you can devote a reasonable amount of time to thinking about this right now (maybe even a trust issue)
  • …I am not really sure whether you have everyone’s best interests at heart
  • …I want to communicate efficiently because there are a lot of viewpoints to cover
  • …I want to communicate helpfully to someone who I can tell needs things to be summarized

With those last few items, less brutal, more gentle, effective summarizing is usually happening.

Who’s doin’ it: Which summarizin’ scenarios suck most?

There’s also this consideration of the scenario, and this makes a big difference. Who is summarizing, and who are they summarizing for?

  • Least risky: I am summarizing what someone else said, to another audience that knows them well.
  • Mid-risky: I am summarizing what you just said, to a group that is neutral toward you.
  • Very risky: I am summarizing what you just said, to you.
  • Yikes: I am not known to like your stuff, and I am summarizing what you just said, to an audience that doesn’t like you, while you’re standing there with the full capability of representing yourself.

On top of everything else, those last two can come off like a direct “fix your communication style” and boy howdy that’s not a good way to even wade into that arena.

Being a Gentle-summarizer: Context-compatible Summarizing

The thing is, sometimes it’s hard to tell what kind of summarizing context it is.

So if you’re the one summarizing, I think it can be very helpful…well, and polite…nay, even necessary to offer a bit of context.

Here are some ideas on how to set up a nice, context-compatible summary:

  • “Really quick, I’m totally exhausted for unrelated reasons, but I want to register my attention to what you’re saying, so does this sound about right?”
  • “So, if I could get your feedback on some takeaways as a total beginner…”
  • “I need to take all this in and give it the respect it deserves, but I want to start somewhere, so how does this sound?”
  • “I know I have a lot to learn, but to start with…”

Self-Defence against Brutal Summarizing

Sometimes it can help to protect oneself against being summarized. To offer just a few examples of that:

  • Question-focus / Object-focus: “Can I ask your (or your audience’s) level of experience with the topic before we get into summarizing? How long have you worked in the field, and are there credentials, or other experiences you can touch on for me?”
  • Skip-to-application-focus: “I’m really not sure if it’s helpful to summarize it quite yet. After all, I love to hike in the mountains, but it never even occurred to me to try to summarize how hiking worked before I tried it. So could we try the application or exercises first, see how it goes?”
  • Humor-focus: “Just to acknowledge that I spent years studying this from wizards, so I want to say that summarizing the whole of it right now may utterly fail in doing it justice. All wizards know this, and I was warned about people like you.”
  • Depth-focus: “It’s very hard to summarize something like this, and I want to acknowledge that directly. There are probably many different summaries, in different contexts, that would be required to come at it with the right attitude.”
  • Values-focus: “I know you want to have a high-quality discussion here, so I want to be fair to the details and make sure this isn’t just a battle to share various hot takes. So maybe we could pick some specific contexts or item and discuss those, giving proper respect to the breadth and depth of the topic.”

Why Do All This?

So—why go to all the trouble? Well, I’d say: Do it for you. Seriously, do it for yourself. You’ll win more friends and influence more people, if that’s what you’re wanting to do. They’ll think, “you know who never summarizes me unfairly? That person.” Right?

But you may also save yourself from some big headaches.

And the next time someone summarizes you, you might even be able to think more effectively about what they’re doing. You’ll have a better read on the situation, at the very least:

  • I’m being summarized a lot. Am I around a bunch of exhausted people (could be), or what is the context here?
  • This person summarized what I said to the group. Is the group looking for a quick, bite-sized offering in what I say next? Well, I’m good at that, and no one speaks better for me than me…

This could open up valuable opportunities to ask for more time, alter your communication style, more closely align yourself with others like you, etc.

Finally, you’ll probably be able to understand your pals better. Always a good idea.

I’m sure there are lots more reasons, too.

A Final Tip

When you summarize yourself for others, use “but that’s another story” liberally, to cover huge swaths of details. Nobody can really expect your summaries to give the full story, BUT, in case they really have such lofty expectations, it can help to directly acknowledge this, and it sets you up for other responses like, “I would love to go there, but really, we need more time for this discussion.”

(Which, for anybody who understands the depth of their topic, is like arranging to have air to breathe…always a good idea)

Filed in: People /70/ | Relationships /77/ | Essays /52/

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