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?