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The Power of Summarizing

Spending A Couple Extra Minutes To Recap Conversations Is Well Worth It.

I worked with a plant manager several years ago who was having difficulty getting his staff to follow-through on their commitments. He felt like they were not listening to what he had to tell them in staff meetings. Before I gave him any advice, I sat in on some of his staff meetings and one-on-one meetings with his team to see what was happening.

His staff meetings were fairly traditional. As the plant manager, he started off talking about production numbers, quality issues and a typical staff meeting agenda. He then went around the table asking each of his supervisors what they had to talk about.

They each gave a quick update on their departments and any problems they were having. When a problem was brought up, everyone chimed in with their ideas on how to fix the problem. As the plant manager met with his supervisors throughout the day, he was constantly reminding them of what was discussed and decided upon in the staff meeting. This went on for a couple days, with me viewing all of the interactions.

On the third day, I told the plant manager to start summarizing each discussion and assign action items. I also told him to summarize the entire meeting and agreed upon action items before the meeting ended. He agreed to give it a try. After a week of adding summaries, as I suggested, the supervisors began taking more notes, his conversations with them later were more action-oriented, and performance improved in every department.

People are busy and have a lot of things on their minds. As a leader, it is your job to make sure that instructions, training, direction, etc. are clear and understood. Our minds can process about 650 words per minute while we can only talk up to about 200 words per minute. People use that gap to think about other things. Simply summarizing conversations will increase the odds they remember what you had to tell them. Some places summarizing can be helpful:

Staff meetings. When you present some issues to your staff, and then ask for input, end each discussion with a summary of what was discussed and next steps. Do this throughout the meeting and only take notes on what was agreed to. When one of your staff members presents a problem and opens it up for ideas, make sure they take on the role of summarizing what they will take away with them. At the end of the meeting, summarize the entire meeting and what the action items are everyone is leaving the meeting with.

One-on-one meetings. We have all experienced the fly-by problem solving that happens in hallways. One person against one wall and the other person against the other wall with people walking between them. There is a quick conversation about a problem, what they should be done, a quick thumbs up and both are on their way. Later on, it becomes painfully clear that neither person understood the entire situation and quite possibly went their separate ways thinking differently. As a leader, assert yourself and add two minutes to those conversations to make sure what was heard is actually what was said.

Training. Most leaders spend a great deal of time training and coaching their employees. We all have different learning styles and grasp ideas and concepts in different ways. You cannot assume that the person you are coaching learns things the same way you do. Simply because they nod their heads and say “Got it, boss,” does not mean they completely understand. Take a couple minutes and ask the person you are coaching to summarize what was talked about. That will give you the opportunity to not only see how well they caught on; it will give you the opportunity to make sure they are on the right path.

With your boss. Your boss holds all the good things and bad things for you. Sometimes, that reality keeps up from telling them we don’t understand what they told us. We do not want to look stupid or incapable, so we clam up. When you do not ask for clarification, you run a bigger risk by making a huge mistake doing something that you thought was right. Good bosses appreciate someone who takes the extra time to summarize. Start summarizing with phrases like: “Before we end this conversation” or “I want to make sure we are together on this.”

Adding summaries to meetings and conversations is not done nearly enough. It is a very valuable tool that is easy to implement and provides huge benefits to everyone involved.

Steve Schumacher is a management consultant, trainer and public speaker with more than 25 years of experience in numerous industries throughout North America, including aggregates operations. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..