Reflective Listening

Reflective listening is one of the most basic and powerful communication tools we have. I recently wrote about it on Facebook (you can find the post here), and today I decided to write a little more about it.

Why? Because yesterday I wrote a post about expressing authentic empathy, and it went more or less unnoticed. Not that I think everyone should stand around waiting to read my every thought or that I have some sort of special insight. In fact, I’m almost never the smartest person in the room, and the post yesterday was about knowledge that I learned from someone else – it was her words of wisdom that I was sharing, not my own.

What Is Reflective Listening?

Reflective listening is a method of actively engaging with a conversational partner and attempting to mirror the thoughts they express in your own words until they feel like you’re paraphrasing their words accurately. It’s an iterative process, meaning that it might take a couple attempts of them saying something and you reflecting back to them before they feel like you get what they’re trying to tell you. This process can be frustrating for both people sometimes, and it takes both practice and patience. But, once you get the hang of it, it’s one of the most powerful communication tools you’ll ever encounter.

It’s so powerful, that one of the first things most counselors will teach their clients is reflective listening. If you already know it, then they might still review it with you because, let’s face it, we all need practice.

Who Needs It? Who Uses it?

I use the word “partner” throughout this post. What I mean is “conversational partner.” Reflective listening is useful for relating to romantic partners, parents, children, siblings, friends, and colleagues. In short, it’s a valuable tool for pretty much everyone.

Reflective listening can help siblings communicate more effectively. The technique is not only for romantic partners.
Stillwater Ripple author Norm with his sister, Stephanie. Reflective listening is an effective way to communicate with anyone, not only a romantic partner. Siblings can use it too.

What It’s Not

When we use reflective listening, we are not capitulating to the speaker, we’re not automatically agreeing with whatever they say, we’re not letting them “walk all over” us. All you’re doing is letting the speaker know that you heard what they said and understand their meaning.

A lot of people, myself included, sometimes get confused about the difference between being heard and being in agreement. Understanding someone is a prerequisite for reaching an agreement, but it’s not the same thing as agreeing.

If you want someone to agree with you, that’s fine. Communicate your desire for agreement – how you see the issue, what agreement would look like to you, and any path you see to reaching consensus. Seek understanding – or, for the listener, expressing that you understand – is not agreement in itself.

The idea of reflective listening or mirroring is to help your partner feel heard and understood. That’s it. Nothing else.

Is Reflective Listening Always Best?

No. Reflective listening isn’t always the best tool. Sometimes, it’s better to shut your mouth and just be there. Sometimes your partner needs to hear, “That sucks!” It’s an honest, heartfelt expression of empathy.

Nevertheless, when the listening session transitions to something more conversational, reflecting your partner’s statements can be very helpful.

Reflective listening and empathic expressions are a powerful combination.
This photo of Sophie also appeared in yesterday’s post about expressing empathy. Here you see her seeming to wish for a more comfortable pillow. When we imagine what others might feel, we’re trying to empathize with them.

A Powerful Combination

One of the key reasons to use reflective listening is to communicate empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world as they might. Mirroring your partner’s ideas lets them know you’re making an effort to understand how they see things. Again, it’s not the same as agreeing with each other. But when you see another person’s point of view, it’s easier to imagine what an agreement might look like.

One really powerful combination of listening techniques is to mix “that sucks!” with reflective statements. To do this, you might start with and honest and heartfelt, “wow, that really sucks!” Then you might communicate that you’re interested in your partner and care about them by letting them talk about it more. Not “I’m here for you” but something more like, “I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. What was it like for you?” Let your partner teach you about their point of view. Then, when they’re done answering, you reflect with, “It sounds like you felt….” and fill in the blank with something kind and appropriate to the conversation.

You can follow that general sequence even if the person that hurt your partner is you. Put away your ego, drop your defense, and own the fact that you bruised or otherwise hurt them. This isn’t the time to tell them why they’re wrong, why you’re right, or that they’re not listening. Let them say their part and help them feel heard. There will be time for sharing your point of view later. In the meantime, you’ll help your partner feel like you care and want to listen, and your ability to reflect what they’re saying will help them feel understood.

Sometimes that’s all we need. It’s not always important for our partners to agree with us as long as they understand us, right?

That sucks

TL;DR: By saying, “That sucks!” you can express authentic empathy. You don’t need to fix or solve things, just listen.

“That sucks!”

It’s a simple two-word phrase with immense power. Uttered with empathy and authenticity, “that sucks!” is probably one the most helpful things you could ever say to someone. Why? Because it communicates that empathy without trying to fix things, without talking down to anyone, and without argument or correction. It lets someone know you heard them and perceived their pain/frustration/anger/irritation/sadness/whatever while allowing them to continue leading the conversation.

That sucks! Sophie was tired and just wanted a place to rest her head.
That sucks! Sophie was tired and just wanted a place to rest her head. Expressing authentic empathy is that simple.

Skye taught me this response. The first time she brought it up was during one of those moments when she accused me of not listening. In typical dude fashion, everything I said to her was some sort of solution or some form of the question, “are you sure ….?” You know, the sort of stuff that almost everyone does (yes, women do it too, but that’s a different blog post).

I Get It – You Just Want To Help

In our desire to commiserate, show compassion (express empathy mixed with a desire to help), to alleviate someone’s distress, we say things that just aren’t helpful. And sometimes we say something that’s harmful or somehow makes the conversation about ourselves instead of the person we’re trying to help. But that’s not what the person needs. More often than not, if the person needs help, they’ll ask for it. If they need advice, they’ll ask for it. They’ll ask for what they need, in most cases. But even if they don’t, it’s rarely our job to tell someone what they need. Who are we to decide that? How the hell would we know what someone else needs, unless they tell us?

Simply saying, “that sucks” is probably the best thing you can do in most situations. You should mean it – be authentic – but assuming that you do, say it! Let the person know you heard them and get that whatever they told you about does, indeed, suck. And then, if they’re receptive to more conversation, you can ask which part of their experience sucks the most, what life would look like if things didn’t suck, etc. Ask them to teach you about the way they experience the world. Ask them – don’t force them or insist – if they are willing to share more about the suck thing.

You don’t need to fix it. Nor do you need to solve their problem. You don’t need to offer your opinion. If these things are needed, the person you’re talking to will tell you.

I know it goes against your instincts. It went against mine when Skye first taught me how to listen to her. But trust me, it works. If your goal is to help your partner feel heard and express real empathy, put a lid on that part of your brain that wants to make everything better, shut your mouth, and just let them know that you get it. You can talk about solutions later. If your partner needs help fixing things, you can offer to help later. If there’s need for a hero, you can show up with your horse and armor later.

Level Up From “That Sucks!”

Sometimes you’re going to run into situations that call for more than “that sucks!” Remember, you’re listening to someone you care for. You want them to feel heard and understood. You want to express empathy.

So do that exact thing. Listen to what your partner is saying and respond with “that sounds really frustrating” or “wow, that sounds really sad” or another similar phrase that indicates you were listening and caught on to the speaker’s mood. Not sure how they feel? Ask them. Use reflective listening, mirror what your partner said with language like, “I heard you say….” and then give them the opportunity to rephrase their message. Rinse and repeat until they agree you’re mirroring them accurately.

There’s No Mystery

What I’m writing here is really basic stuff. There’s no mystery or secret code. There’s no magical incantation. Nothing you need to do. Simply listen to your partner without trying to fix them or their situation.

Simple, right? Yep. Easy? No.

Believe it or not, I had to practice saying, “that sucks.” Well, to be accurate, I had to practice saying just that and nothing else. I still haven’t mastered it – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve squished a perfectly good conversation by letting my white stallion trod roughshod over a vulnerable moment.

Why This Post In This Moment?

I’m glad you asked. (OK, maybe you didn’t ask, but go with me on this, please?)

I’ve been pretty open about my journey for several years now. The degree of openness waxes and wanes, but if you dig into my social media, you’ll find that I discuss mental health and emotional wellness more and more as I grow. That progresion has led to a couple of fundamental truths that I’ll talk about in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that my openness makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they almost always try to commiserate, offer a solution, or tell me how to fix myself. It’s a little ironic, too, because I’m usually pretty clear about my intent. I share to help normalize the conversation surrounding emotional wellness, not to ask for help. Yet people can’t help themselves, and my post comments and DMs are full of “you ought to” and “you should” and “when I feel that way…”

I get it. All the comments are intended to communicate concern or empathy. Some are expressions of solidarity. But very few are expressions of empathy as pure as “that sucks!” or one of its more nuanced cousins.

We, as people who listen to and care about others, really need to work on this skill.

Tales From The Ant World – A book review

Tales From the Ant World, E. O. Wilson’s book that came out this August, was a fun and interesting read. I enjoyed peeking inside the mind of a man who has built his life around his sheer passion for natural history and his love of ants in particular. I recommend buying and reading the book if you have even the slightest interest in natural history, ants, or the way scientists think about natural history.

Tales From the Ant World cover
The cover of Tales From the Ant World by E. O. Wilson

The Best Part of Tales

Wilson is a master of understated joy. He writes with a reverence for his subject that you rarely encounter from other authors. And that’s the best part of Tales From the Ant World: E. O. Wilson took the time to write down some of his favorite things about ants. Interesting things. Things that are stranger than fiction in the way that only natural history can be.

And for that glimpse of joy, I recommend buying the book.

The bits I didn’t like

It pains me to say this because I’ve been a bit of a Wilson devotee for most of my professional life, but there were parts of Tales From the Ant World that weren’t what I hoped for. Wilson’s voice was a little too nostalgic, and the story telling a touch scattered in some parts of the book. Not that I’m a great writer, but I don’t have a team of editors at my back, either. Since Wilson does, one must assume that he told them to mind their own business when they suggested he try not to sound so old. I more or less read half the book with Grandpa Simpson’s voice inside my head.

Verdict: Read Tales From the Ant World

READ IT! Tales From the Ant World is interesting, full of great natural history, and it’ll make you smile more than once. If you’re like me and cut your teeth on Wilson’s earlier books, you’ll enjoy this one too. As I said above, Wilson’s love of natural history comes shining through. Just prepare yourself for more nostalgia than his other books and you’ll be good to go.


A version of this review also appears on

Check out my list of serotonin boosting foods

I just published a new page with a list of serotonin boosting foods. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

Serotonin is also known as the "happiness hormone" and it can be boosted by including certain foods in your diet.
This is the chemical structure of serotonin, the “happiness hormone.”

Serotonin, sometimes called the “happiness hormone,” is a neurotransmitter our bodies produce from an essential amino acid called tryptophan.

In English, this means that one chemical in our brain is produced from something our body can’t make on its own. Instead, it gets that chemical from the food we eat. And that means that what we eat can have a direct effect on how we feel.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying that eating the foods on the list will magically make your depression go away. Far from it. BUT, what you eat can help you improve your overall emotional wellness and give your therapist and your SSRIs a fighting chance.

eggs are one of the foods that may help boost serotonin
Some foods like these farm fresh eggs help provide tour body with tryptophan, the chemical precursor of serotonin

If you’re like me, you like to use every tool at your disposal. You also have a deep appreciation for evidence. And you’re a bit guarded when it comes to mind-body connection kinds of things because, traditionally, we’ve been taught to be skeptical about such things. So, to alleviate some of the concerns that sprout from well-meaning skepticism, the page I just wrote includes links to peer reviewed literature as well as some easier to read resources.

If you have questions, please feel free to reach out using the form on our contact page.

Welcome To Stillwater Ripple!

I want to look outward on the world, learning what I can and participating in it. Moving apart from the world is not for me. I want to make ripples and be moved by the ripples that others make.

Welcome to Stillwater Ripple! Today, 17 September 2020, I migrated my website from to because I didn’t like having an eponymous website. It seemed… Cheesy. And too self-centered. It wasn’t me.

Welcome to Stillwater Ripple from Norm Leonard (pictured with son Wolfie on a paddleboard)

I want to look outward on the world, learning what I can and participating in it. Moving apart from the world is not for me. I want to make ripples and be moved by the ripples others make.

For those of you who were already following me on, I wrote more about the name change on a blog post for that site.

Why “Stillwater Ripple”?

The title of this website comes from the song Ripple by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia of the The Grateful Dead. It’s a song about making our way in the world – “ripple in still water where there is no pebble tossed nor wind to blow” – and the difficulty of leading where “no one may follow.” It dares us to follow our own path. And I love it. I love the message. And it also reminds me of my dad, Ken Leonard, who also loved the song for similar reasons. Besides, it’s just a solid piece of music.

My favorite version of the song is by Playing For Change, featuring Bill Kreutzmann.

Anyway, the ripple metaphor touches me at my very core, and I promise this is only the first of many, many more times you’ll read about it on this website!

This site is about growth, making ripples in still water. It’s about the journey, not the destination. The process, not the product. So, as you read, I hope you notice the gratitude, the emphasis on human connections, the core values of cheerful service and self denial. I believe life is better when we act together rather than alone. It’s better when we recognize and advocate for the dignity of others. And it’s more fun when we share it all.

Live with Intent. Be Present. Practice Gratitude. And Ripple in Still Water.

And welcome to Stillwater Ripple!

I am only one, but still I am one

A few days ago, I posted to my Facebook page for Southeast Ecology with a quote from Edward Everett Hale, American author and Unitarian Universalist minister. The quote, sometimes titled “Lend a Hand” is one of my favorites.

Hale’s Lend a Hand Idea

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Edward Everett Hale

I posted the quote with a re-posted ad from the Satilla Riverkeeper to help them spread the word about an upcoming river cleanup effort on September 19th. My intent was to use Hale’s words to remind my Facebook followers how the efforts of each individual add up. Alone, none of us accomplishes much, but in aggregate our efforts make a big difference.

OK, But What’s The Big Deal?

Hale’s idea isn’t unique – many people have said something similar – but what is unique is his pushback against the feeling of ineffectiveness. Instead of deciding not to try because the efforts of only one person are likely to be inconsequential by themselves, he leads us to the idea of agency. We are empowered to act simply by virtue of our existence, and feeling small or inadequate is hardly a reason to abdicate that power. If we do, then we the prophecy of ineffectiveness is self-fulfilling.

Obviously, I think Hale’s words make an important point. His words are so important to me that they are foundational to one of my core values: live each day with the intent of making the world a better place. Grand, sweeping gestures aren’t necessary – the word “gestures” pretty much makes that clear – but small actions can and do have great effect. And they often add to the small actions of others in ways that make a BIG difference.

Edward Everett Hale, American author and Unitarian Universalist minister
Photo of Edward Everett Hale from the Lend A Hand Society webpage

Hale’s Words Are Important To Conservation

It’s not uncommon for conservation-minded people to feel overwhelmed or that their efforts are pointless because no one else seems to care.

Hale’s Lend A Hand quote reminds us that even though each of us is “only one,” we still have the ability to do something. The implication being that we each power to effect change in our small part of the world, and those small contributions add up to something big.

So, take heart! Your efforts do matter. A lot.

Deep Dive Into Hale

Since I made the above referenced Facebook post, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the quote from Hale. So I decided to see what more I could learn. Below is a short list of links I perused.

Hale is widely quoted. A good list of his quotes is available on goodreads. Another pretty good compilation is available on BrainyQuote.

Hale was a prolific writer. Here is an archive of three of the pieces he wrote for the The Atlantic.

Several people and organizations have published biographical information about Hale. One of the best pieces is from the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography. Another good biography is on the website for Boston’s Lend A Hand Society; the society is named for the title of the quote I used above. And then there’s this piece from Harvard Magazine.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post – A book review

I try to read widely, which means I often pick up books outside my preferred genres. This time I selected The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily A. Danforth. (Both links lead to Amazon.)

And what a fortuitous choice!


Danforth’s novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post is excellent. Following the formative years of Cameron Post, a young woman in Miles City, ND, the story describes the character’s growth as young lesbian in a intolerant conservative community. We meet Cameron when she’s a relatively young girl, just as she’s discovering her sexuality and right before tragedy hits. Being an LGBTQ teenager is, I suspect, difficult enough, but being lesbian and also losing her parents means that Cameron had to figure a lot of stuff out by herself. I don’t want to give away the whole story by summarizing the book here, so suffice it to say that if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a young lesbian woman in conservative rural community, then this story provides a good primer.

cover of Miseducation of Cameron Post
The paperback cover of The Miseducation of Cameron Post written by Emily M. Danforth and published by Balzer + Bray

Why I liked Miseducation

The fact that Cameron Post’s story is a good primer is, in fact, exactly what lead me to read it. My own child faced some of the same struggles as the book’s main character and recommended it to me as a sort of introduction to their reality. I can’t say that much of what I read in Miseducation was surprising or shocking, but it did distill some of the things I had heard and imagined into a digestible story that allowed me to make sense of what I thought I knew. And it helped me understand my kid’s world with a little more clarity.

It’s that sense of understanding just a little bit better that made me really like the book. I related to Cameron even though I’m a straight white middle-aged man who hails from a fairly liberal community. That’s the kind of writer Danforth is; she drew me in and told me Cameron Post’s story in a way that kept my attention for 470 pages. And when I say she kept my attention, what I mean is that she told Cameron’s tale in a way that made me feel the story as much as anything else.

What I didn’t like about Cameron Post’s story

Danforth’s writing is easy to read and sounds like it might be authentic if you don’t overthink every passage. However, bits of the book were a little lengthy and wordier than necessary. I also thought the story’s end could have been done a little better. But then again, endings are some of the most difficult material to write, and who doesn’t say that about many books?

There was nothing in the book that would prevent me from recommending it.

Take away – I recommend the book

I definitely recommend this book to young adults and parents of young adults. You needn’t be LGBTQ to enjoy it or grow from it, either. The story is fundamentally sound, with all the elements of a good novel. So you can enjoy it purely for the narrative. But for those of you who like to be a little more reflective, there’s plenty to think on. Simply reading the book is likely to increase your empathy for a large and increasingly visible segment of our population. And, as we all know, this is an age in which empathy is something we need more than ever.


A version of this review also appears on