Reflective Listening: How to Hear What You Are Missing
“Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable.”
—William Stringfellow, “A Keeper of the Word”
It’s easy to forget, but there are two parts to a conversation: speaking and listening. It’s not just two people speaking to each other; without receiving the information being shared from the other side, communication isn’t really happening. We rarely focus on the receiving, and yet our entire worldviews comprise the information we take in—from our environments, from the media, and from the people we interact with.
Picture it this way: Communication is a dance. Someone needs to begin the speaking, sure, but just as important is that there’s someone on the other side, willing to receive it and offer their part of the dance: not just hearing what is being said, but really listening to it. We’ve spent years teaching people how to ask important, powerful, and sometimes scary questions, but if there isn’t a person on the other end of that question willing to hear what you’re asking and respond to it, there’s nothing to be gained from the interaction; you’d just be dancing by yourself.
We all want to be heard, and it’s best to lead by example, so practice “reflective listening,” and make it a part of your training programs to facilitate better office communications. Reflective listening requires both attention and intention, and that you keep in mind how your own opinions and worldview shape your interpretation of what was said. This can build trust and defuse conflicts between employees before they even begin, since those employees will have tools at their disposal to more effectively come to an understanding.
Listening is essential to building trusting relationships with the important people in our lives. Want to understand what is really happening in your communication with the people around you? Practice reflective listening so people feel truly seen and heard, and are likely to return the favor when it’s your turn to speak. There are two main things to keep in mind as you practice reflective listening. First, notice what you’re listening for, and second, reflect what you’re hearing. This will allow you to listen more impactfully.
If you can consciously recognize what you tend to listen for in advance, it can help you break away from the trap of only listening for those things and filtering out the others. Begin by making a list of all the things you might be listening for in a given situation. As some examples, note what you would be listening for:
- When your boss calls you in your office
- When you answer a phone call from somebody you owe something to
- When you are speaking with someone who believes in something you don’t
It’s easy to see, in each of these above conversations, that you might be focused on listening for certain things and will tune out a good portion of what doesn’t fit into the framework you’re using for the discussion. You might be searching for answers such as:
- “What did I do wrong?” or “Are you going to fire me?”
- “Am I being admonished?” or “Do I have time for this?”
- “Will I be accepted if I share?” or “What do they need from me?”
In each case, you would only be getting a narrow glimpse into what actually is being said—namely, the answer (or non-answer) to the question you’re asking yourself, which might have nothing to do with why this person is talking to you. A lot of information here is going past you as you’re not ready to receive it. If your mother is telling you that you are wrong, and all you can think is “What did I do to make her mad at me?” or “What’s her problem?” you likely won’t pick up the fact that your mom also is telling you she loves you, she is concerned about you, and she wants the best for you.
Once you’ve identified the questions you listen for by default, take a step back and ask yourself, “What else can I be listening for?” Let the other person guide you; if you’re listening, you’ll know what’s important to him or her in this conversation. And for effective listening, reflecting those important things you’re hearing is key.
This is where the term “reflective listening” comes from; when the person you’re speaking with is giving you the opening to respond, reflect back what you heard him or her say to make sure that you’re following. There are a few different ways to do this.
- Verbatim: This is the simplest way. You can reflect exactly what the other person is saying, using many of the same words he or she did. This is especially useful for clarification, if a particular word surprised you, or if there is a lot of emotion in what the person is saying (as it slows down what might otherwise be a very charged situation).
- Translation: Reflect what you are hearing the other person say, but using your own words. A simple Translation uses synonyms for the other person’s words, but if you want to get deeper into his or her intention and opinion, try “far out” Translation, which uses words with entirely different meanings.
- Unstated Feelings: You can reflect your sense of the other person’s feelings, even if they are not being said directly. This can be useful to gauge if the other person is speaking from a place of emotion, and what that means for the content of what he or she is saying.
- Connecting the Dots: You also can connect the different ideas the other person is sharing throughout the conversation, and bring an insight to both parties (or, if you’re wrong, the other person will share why that is, and you can move closer to understanding him or her).
People can tell that we care when we reflectively listen. The point is never to “be right,” but to let the other person know he or she is seen and heard. The result is that people feel comfortable expressing themselves, and work better together with coworkers and managers. Noticing what you’re listening for and practicing reflecting what you’ve heard back will grease the skids in any new professional relationship, and benefit both parties. Try it out next time you’re having a conversation!
WiLL WiSE, M.Ed., has more than two decades of experience custom building leadership programs for corporate and nonprofit groups. Leaders call WiSE when there is a lack of trust getting in the way of results. For more information, visit www.weand.me. Most recently, WiSE has been passionate about sharing his No. 1 Amazon Bestselling Book, “Asking Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter.”
Chad Littlefield, M.Ed. is a speaker and professional facilitator. Leaders and conference organizers call Littlefield when they want to make their events more interactive and engaging. He has spoken at TEDx and is the creator of We! Connect Cards (www.weand.me), which now are being used to create conversations that matter on campuses and companies in more than 50 countries around the world.