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The Power of Reflective Listening

One of the chief complaints I hear in my office from clients is that the important people in their lives do not listen to them.

Here are samples of the types of things I hear:

My parents don't get me. My husband/wife tells me I have nothing to be concerned about, doesn't listen when I talk, makes me feel disrespected, etc My kids tell me I wouldn't understand, I lecture too much, or I just get one word answers out of them.

We have all heard some version of these statements at one point or another, but if you are hearing these types of things more often than not, then you are probably not doing a good job with Reflective Listening or listening in general for that matter.

Before we get into how to improve your ability to listen, let's look at some ways you can tell that you could stand to improve you communication skills.

You are NOT listening well if:

  • You are thinking about your response while the other person is speaking

  • You are checking your phone or computer or watching TV while the other is talking

  • Giving advice without having been asked for it

  • Negating the other person's feelings by responding with statements along the lines of, “It's not so bad. Everyone has bad days. You don't really feel that way. You're so dramatic. You think that's bad, well, when I was a kid...” (I can feel my eyes glazing over even as I type)

  • You are not reflecting feelings

  • People are constantly telling you that you are not listening.

May I Have Your Attention Please?

Some of the points I just mentioned are pretty clear and do not require too much explanation. For example, if you are thinking of a good reply rather than focusing on what is being said, then you are more concerned with what you have to say and less concerned about trying to understand the person speaking to you.

Similarly, if you are watching TV or using some other electronic device while someone is talking, not only are you missing some of what they are saying, but you are sending the message that the conversion is not important to you. A good rule of thumb, is to turn everything off and give the other person your undivided attention. You may not agree with what they are saying, but at the very least you are showing them that you respect their feelings.

Mr/Mrs Fix It

Many people think that they are being helpful by giving advice or directions when a loved one comes to them with a problem or concern. When a person comes to you with an issue that they need to discuss or even just to vent about their day, they don't want you to “fix” anything for them. They just want to be heard. They want to talk and know that you care about their situation. Giving advice when you haven't been asked for it feels like a lecture. The person who came to you will end up feeling unheard and defensive and will be less likely to come to you in the future.

Nobody likes a know it all or an “I can solve your problems for you” attitude. You know you are doing this if people, especially your kids, call you “preachy.” It's important to show people that you have faith that they can solve their own problems and that you will be there for them if they need you.

Disowning Feelings

Do not deny another person's perceptions and experiences. Their feelings as they are experiencing them are real. For example, if your child comes home from school and tells you they just had the worst day of their lives (their locker jammed, they tripped in front of a cute boy/girl, someone else had on the exact same outfit, whatever), the last thing you should say is, “You're so dramatic. That doesn't sound like something to get riled up about. You make a big deal out of everything.”

Have you ever noticed that when you reply this way your child seems to become even more insistent and frustrated? Facts are not convincing or compelling when a person is feeling upset or angry. Try not to be critical and minimize the other person's experience. This leads us to the final point about reflective listening.

Reflecting Feelings

When you can correctly reflect a person's feelings back to them, you are showing them that you understand their experience. You are not focused on the content of what is being said, but rather the tone and emotion being conveyed. In theory, this is a relatively simple skill, but people rarely put it into practice in their day to day communication. It's just not how most people talk.

However, this is one of the most powerful communication tools you will ever use if you can figure out how to do it. It makes the person who is talking to you feel cared for and understood on an emotional level. It is disarming in the best kind of way. Basically, after someone has finished telling you about something, you use words that show you understand their particular feelings in that situation.

For example, you come home from work and your partner tells you that he/she is stressed out from running after kids, cleaning up messes, and dealing with tantrums all day. Your response would be something like, “It sounds like you have had a really long day. I bet you are so exhausted and probably feeling overwhelmed.” You don't say, “Ya, those kids are a hand-full. Talk about a long day, I was in boring meetings all day.”

How many of you reading this just smacked yourself in the forehead?

Reflective Listening in a nut shell

Reflective listening is a way of providing a caring, nurturing environment for the people in your life. If we want a child, for example, to be a caring human being who respects others, we need to respond to them in respectful, caring ways.

Through reflective listening our children, and all the other people we are in important relationships with, know we value their dignity. They “feel felt,” which gives them a sense of well being that results in stress reduction.

Reflective listening is a skill that is useful in establishing and maintaining ALL relationships: with family, colleagues, and friends. With a little practice, you will be able to master these skills and you will probably be surprised at how much the relationships in your life improve and how much closer you end up feeling to the people that matter most to you.

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