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.