There are five words that no thoughtful person ever wants to hear: “You're not listening to me!” Initially, the words can hurt, but after contemplation, you may realize that they carry at least a trace of truth. No, you're not a bad person, and no, you're not a hopeless cause. All you may need is an understanding of reflective listening – and how mastering this straightforward technique can improve the relationships that matter most to you.
Reflect on the Technique
As you probably know, there's a profound difference between hearing and listening. It would probably make your head spin to count all the conversations you hear in an average day. Many may be nothing more than “background noise” – or conversations you tune into and tune out, depending on your interest level.
When you put distractions aside, look somebody in the eye and pay close attention to their words, you're engaging in active listening. Reflective listening ramps up your attention one more notch by giving you a way to metaphorically hold up a mirror to speakers and reflect their words back to them in terms of how they feel, what they hope for or expect, or what they want or need.
This is a small but vital distinction. Reflective listening puts the listener in the role of more than just a mere parrot – repeating words and, if necessary, asking for confirmation. Reflective listening requires the listener to understand and articulate someone's perspective, regardless of different opinions or values, and recast their words with empathy.
Reflect on the Technique in Action
Examples can help to clarify the techniques. Here are two that demonstrate how reflective listening works in action:
- Speaker: “I've been out of the workforce for a while, so I think I should take it slow.”
- _Listene_r: “It sounds as though you may want to work part-time because you're nervous about taking on too much. Is this correct?”
- Speaker: “I think you care about me, but I don't know why you don't put much thought into my birthday or our anniversary.”
- Listener: “It sounds like I've hurt your feelings because I haven't made you feel special on your birthday and our anniversary. What can I do to make you happy?”
Reflect on the Benefits
These examples provide a snapshot of conversations between a potential employee and an employer and a couple involved in a committed relationship. But reflective listening can improve communication between virtually any two people who want to improve the quality of their communications, including between parent and child, teacher and student, supervisor and employee, and client and customer.
Reflective listening also can:
- Assure the speaker that the listener genuinely cares about what he or she is saying. Give the speaker the opportunity to clarify and restate his or her position and feelings – and the listener the chance to understand what may have been misconstrued. Allow the speaker to see flaws, gaps or discrepancies in his or her logic. Identify areas of disagreement, so they can be resolved. Open the door to enriched understanding between the two parties.
Reflect on Some Useful Tips
With benefits like these at stake, it may help to know that many people could probably benefit from sharpening their reflective listening techniques – at least with the people they care about most. The fact is that listening is a skill, and it takes time and effort to do it well – precisely why many teachers bemoan the fact that schools do not dedicate courses to honing this crucial life skill.
With time and practice, your reflective listening skills are bound to improve, especially if you:
- Give the speaker your undivided attention.* Adopt a calm, respectful and nonjudgmental tone.
- Admit to any confusion you might feel and ask for clarification.
- Know when it may be appropriate to reveal your own views – and not use reflective listening as a “reflective shield” to avoid exposing your vulnerabilities.
Mary Wroblewski earned a master's degree with high honors in communications and has worked as a reporter and editor in two Chicago newsrooms. She launched her own small business, which specialized in assisting small business owners with “all things marketing” – from drafting a marketing plan and writing website copy to crafting media plans and developing email campaigns. Mary writes extensively about small business issues, and especially “all things marketing.”