Reflective listening is the ability to bounce back at them what they are saying. This is a skill that does not come naturally to us. When involved in a conversation we tend to talk about ourselves, or give advice, we try to make them feel better or agree or disagree or tell stories.
In order to be a good reflective listener. We need to set aside our own wants briefly and ensure the other persons gets your “Attention”, “Empathy” and “Show them you understand” what they are saying.
Reflective listening helps people know that you are understanding them. And, at its best it can help them “clarify thinking”. Helps them what is underneath those thoughts and emotions. And, helps them find solutions on their own.
It is basically a magical thing.
I spent a year in grade school learning this and I have spent the next several years to use it. It is my most powerful therapeutic tool. It is so simple that most people can learn the basics and begin to practise it on their own.
The simplest thing you can do to show others that you understand them is to summarise what they say “summarise the content”. And then, “Ask” them, if you got it right. If you try and do this without a relationship, this can sound patronising and condescending. Make sure to be sincere.
Basically take what they said and put it in your own words with a question mark right at the end.
Lets use an example of a teen who really wants to go to a concert with his friends.
Male Teen – “Mum all my friends are going to this concert….You are so unfair”
Staying on the content level.
Mum – “You really want to go to the concert tonight”.
This may seem so basic and so obvious that we often just skip over it. But remember good listening is not just about understanding, its about SHOWING them you understand. And make little reflective statements like this can go a long wat to make the other person feel that they are understood.
It does not do you or them any good if you understand them, but they don’t know it.
Hearing it back can be a good part of the process for some people.
You can also use this if you are unsure of what they mean. For example, you could say, “let me see if I am getting this straight….you are angry with your sister because she borrowed her astronomy books without asking”.
It is also important to ask if you got it right. For example, I was recently in a session with a couple. The woman was explaining that it made her feel shut down and upset. When…her husband would always try and solve her emotions instead of listening to her. While talking to the husband, he felt upset because she did not accept his quick advice. I though out a guess…”when she doesn’t accept your advice you feel reject?
He took a moment….paused…..and then clarified.
Male – “No its not that…I can handle my solutions being rejected or even me personally being rejected. It just, I just love fixing things. ”.
I tried again – “So you feel a little lost? You don’t know what to do if you can’t be a fixer?”
Male – “Exactly!....Like….what is my role. I want to do good and if I can’t fix anything I feel that there is no point. ”
After listening to him reflectively and validating and understanding him, I was then able to explain to him that actually listening and validating what someone has said can actually be more helpful. And it genially does some good. And, because he knew I understood him. He accepted me an my advice.
This is basically staying on the content level.
Level 2 is basically reflecting to help the other “Clarify their Thoughts” and make it more concrete. “Name Emotions”. When people understand why they are thinking or feeling that way, there is greater potential to find solutions or acceptance. When this is done from a “I will fix you attitude”, this will feel like judgement. Don’t try to diagnosis them or be their therapist. Be serene, be humble, be “Curious”. Ask questions to clarify, but not to guide the conversation.
This is the emotion level. Helping them understand their emotions.
Back to the concert example.
Mum – “Your upset that I don’t trust you…”Or
Mum – “You probably feel annoyed that I don’t get you….” OR
Mum “You are feeling sad or angry….”
You probably wondering, why am I making statements instead of asking the question like “Are you feeling angry?” With good listening, statements are often better than questions. Because
Number 1 – questions are about your agenda, not theirs. Questions make it so that you are directing the conversation in the direction you want it to go. Instead of being the listener. With questions mean you become the person deciding where the conversation should go. You may here what you want to hear. But they may not be able to say what they are trying to say. Questions…discourage the other from speaking their mind.
Number 2 – questions often make the other person feel interrogated and on the defensive. This leads the other to being less open. I am not saying you should never ask questions. But, in general, people ask too many questions under the guise of listening. Try to catch yourself and let go of your agenda and use more reflective statements. Pay close attention….you will see it will invite more openness.
At its very best Reflective Listening will help the speaker express and then understand concepts that are at the leading edge of their comprehension. They don’t really understand them, but by talking about them and expressing them. It helps them learn things about themselves and their emotions that they didn’t know before the conversation.
Level 3 is the meaning level and to distill meaning. Helping them express what all this means to them. When we bounce back something at the meaning level, you might say something like “you are afraid that I am saying you’re a bad person” or “your not good enough to go to that concert”. You want to be trust worthy but it hurts to believe in your abilities.
Back to the concert example.
Mum – “your frustrate that you don’t have complete freedom in your life yet”
Mum – “I bet it is really frustrating for you to have rules that you don’t agree with. This makes you feel like you don’t have power over your own life”
Or another example of two women.
Woman 1 – “I am pretty sure Marco loves me, but he doesn’t put big enough effort into my birthday or anniversary”.
Woman 2 - “So…you are feeling unappreciated. You wish for Marco to be more thoughtful and chivalrous”.
Woman 1 – “Exactly….For example for my birthday last much….”
But…. We don’t need to go to the deepest level every time. When we use reflective listening we can address content, feelings, meanings and when something is up. Here are some examples of how that would sound.
“So from your point of view its….”
“It sounds like your feeling….”
“It seems like…”
“What I guess your feeling is….”
It might be that you….”
Some measure of guessing….like making these above tentative statements can be helpful. Your not trying to be a therapist, but make yourself and them better understand.
Do not try and diagnosis, solve or argue. Don’t tell them other person your motives or analyse them. Your goal is not to figure them out, but, to get on the same page as them.
Show them you understand by summarising, asking to clarify and looking for deeper meaning.