How to Use Reflective Listening Techniques

by Judy Kilpatrick

One of the best ways to improve your relationship with another person is to practice reflective listening techniques. Positive communication requires more than just letting someone say what they want to say without interrupting, while politely waiting your turn to speak. Reflective listening combines the skills of active listening, repeating back to the speaker what the listener heard, and reflection, asking questions to clarify that the speaker's feelings and meaning are clearly understood.

First Steps

The first step in reflective listening acknowledges the speaker's meaning. "Listen first and acknowledge what you hear, even if you do not agree with it . . ." advises Dennis Rivers in "The Seven Challenges Workbook." People want two things, acknowledgment and agreement, says Rivers. Through reflective listening you can give a speaker at least the acknowledgment half. This type of listening goes beyond word meanings, and seeks to understand the feelings and desires behind the words. In the second step, express your acknowledgment by asking a question, such as "You are saying that you. . .?" or by using the phrase, "What I hear you say is that you feel . . . and you want. . ."

Suspended Judgment

Speakers are more likely to relax and open up when the listener does not pass judgment in the form of agreement or disagreement. Reflective listening allows a speaker to think out loud, to process and self-reflect, an activity that can take place most successfully in a safe environment. In the presence of a nonjudgmental listener, a speaker can relax her defenses, and she is more likely to clarify her thoughts and feelings, says associate professor Delmar Fisher, in "Communication in Organizations."

Body Language

Your body language says as much, or more, than your words. During reflective listening, it is important to pay close attention to your tone of voice, facial expressions and postures. A flat voice sounds as if you really don't care, and a tense voice betrays your attempt at being nonjudgmental. Successful reflective listening requires sincerity and a genuine desire to help the speaker. A relaxed and alert demeanor reinforces your attitude of suspended judgment.


Successful reflective listening requires perseverance. Listening with your heart, to understand and help the speaker feel understood, can be hard work. Your own emotions may be stirred by the speaker's words. But giving in to your own desire to be heard and understood stops the process of reflective listening. It is important to persevere, using the two key steps of reflective listening -- acknowledgment and asking questions -- to give the speaker ample time to process her thoughts and feelings.

About the Author

For Judy Kilpatrick, gardening is the best mental health therapy of all. Combining her interests in both of these fields, Kilpatrick is a professional flower grower and a practicing, licensed mental health therapist. A graduate of East Carolina University, Kilpatrick writes for national and regional publications.

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