Reflective Listening: A Great Tool for Better Communication

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Thank you to Kassandra Brown for this great guest post on reflective listening and how it can strengthen communication.

Reflective ListeningDo you like to be heard? I mean really heard when you know the person you’re talking to gets what you’re saying and understands you? Me too! This article is about one great tool I’ve found for creating that sort of deep listening.

Reflective listening is a step beyond active listening. Not only does the listener stay engaged and attentive while the speaker is speaking, afterwards they reflect what they heard.

Reflecting at its simplest is saying back to the speaker what you just heard and understood from their words. At a slightly deeper level it involves making empathetic guesses about what the listener thinks is going on for the speaker. At any level it involves humility and honesty.

One format to use looks like this:
Speaker: blah blah blah
Listener: I hear you saying blah blick blah. Did I get it?
Speaker: Sort of
Listener: Is there more?
Speaker: Yes, blah blah bladdity blah
Listener: I heard blah blah bladdity blah and you seem to be feeling angry. Did I get it?
Speaker: Yes
Listener: Is there more?
Speaker: Well blah blick blah blankety blank…
Continue in this format with listener reflecting back what they heard and remember as best as they got it, then asking “Did I get it?” or “Is that what you wanted me to understand?” and then asking “Is there more?”

If this sounds easy to you, let me warn you. It’s not. Reflecting back to someone what you heard requires you to do two very challenging things:

1. Open to imperfection. You might not have heard everything. You may not get it right. Most of us hate not getting it right and have been schooled to cover it up our mistakes. Reflective listening requires vulnerability. Just say what you heard. That’s it. No more. No less. Then ask the person if you got it, if that’s what they wanted you to understand, and is there more?
2. Delay your own gratification. Most of us when we’re listening to someone have a substantial part of our own attention on what we’re going to say next. We’re preoccupied with our own ideas. Reflective listening asks you to delay your own gratification and reflect the attention back to the speaker.

One way challenge may appear is a voice from within you saying “What? I’ve been waiting for my turn to talk and now that this other person is finally done talking you want me to say what they said again and then give them the floor? Are you crazy? I want to talk.” I invite you to notice this voice, this young part of you that wants attention and is worried that they will not get a turn. Cultivating kindness to this part is necessary for reflective listening to work. And it’s part of growing up your communication. I offer coaching and support to learn this process of befriending yourself and deeply listening to yourself and others at www.parentcoaching.org.

More good news? Reflective listening dramatically minimizes thoughtless retorts and hurtful commentary and gives you, the listener, time to really hear what the speaker is trying to tell you. As the speaker reflective listening relieves anxiety and gives you the chance to hear your own words and ideas spoken aloud by another person. This is a powerful way to clarify your own message. It is a powerful way to take more responsibility for your own idea and communication.

True communication happens like a game of ball. The speaker tosses the ball and the listener catches it. If the listener doesn’t catch it, communication didn’t happen. Reflective listening is checking to make sure the listener caught the ball and that the speaker tossed all the balls they needed to. Often when someone starts being heard they will find they have more they want to say. This can be overwhelming for the listener (and the speaker). But don’t worry. With practice, listening and speaking will balance out over time.

If there is an imbalance in who gets to do most of the speaking and who is listening, you may consider having time limits with clear structure and boundaries. Try this:
Exercise: You and your partner come together for an agreed on 30 minutes. Each of you gets 15 minutes to speak while the other listens and reflects. Then you trade roles. Stick to the formula of reflecting then asking
• “Did I get it?”
• “Is that what you wanted me to understand?”
• “Is there more?”

Is this a ‘natural’ way to speak? Perhaps not, but a great many parents I coach say they feel unhappy by the way their spouse doesn’t understand them. Even 15 minutes of speaking, listening, and being reflected can make a huge difference in how much we hear and understand one another.
Why not try it today? Let us know how it works for you, questions that come up, and any suggestions you have to make it better.

Kassandra Brown listens and reflects with parent coaching clients over Skype and phone from her home at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Missouri.

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6 Responses to “Reflective Listening: A Great Tool for Better Communication”

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  1. Shary says:

    We did something similar to this in a non-violent communication workshop I attended years ago. It’s really helpful, and although I may not follow this exact format I always make sure I repeat a situational synopsis if someone is really upset to make sure I understand what they are saying.
    Shary recently posted..Hotslings Review

  2. Kathleen says:

    Great post thanks for the reminder. I’ve read about this before and try to get my kids to say stuff back to me to make sure they understood but I’m bad for not doing it the other way around which I should be since I don’t always understand what they are saying. It IS hard.
    Kathleen recently posted..GIVEAWAY: Pepto Bismol Kit–CAN–01/12

  3. Tazim says:

    Great exercise, for sure. I really think relationships take work – and this would be a great thing to do for so many couples, or families. I know that my family isn’t great for communication, even though I try to ask questions to make sure that I understand.
    Tazim recently posted..A Fresh Start Is Like Jumping Out Of An Airplane

  4. Arabella McIntyre-Brown says:

    I’ve included this in my post today – thanks.
    Arabella McIntyre-Brown recently posted..Attention and intention

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