Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.
What Is Reflective Listening?
Your friend tells you a problem and you're not sure what to say. Should you share your own similar struggles? Should you offer advice? Counselors will tell you a secret; just practicing reflective listening and using reflective listening statements will make your friend feel heard, cared for, and understood.
Reflective listening is being fully present with the speaker, refraining from talking about oneself or giving advice, and using reflective statements that assure the speaker that you are understanding their feelings, thoughts, and needs.
Typically, the format for a reflective statement is, 'You're feeling _____ because you are wanting/needing _____.'' Let's look at a quick example involving Amelia's problems with her boyfriend, Marco.
Amelia: I'm pretty sure Marco loves me, but he doesn't put effort into big celebrations like my birthday or our anniversary.
Gwen: So you're feeling unappreciated and you wish for Marco to be more thoughtful and chivalrous.
Amelia: Exactly! For example, for my birthday last month... (Amelia continues venting and expressing herself)
In everyday conversations, it is generally not instinctive or natural to be a reflective listener. We tend to have an inclination to talk about ourselves, advise others, tell stories, or agree or disagree with the speaker. Reflective listening, and using reflective listening statements, requires a person to have genuine empathy for the speaker. The listener must set aside his or her ego and have the motive for the speaker to gain more from the conversation than they do.
Five Types of Statements
First of all, reflective listening requires the listener to demonstrate that they are fully present and attentive to the speaker by providing appropriate eye contact, facial expression, and body language. Next comes the use of reflective listening words, phrases, and statements. There are five categories of reflective listening statements:
'Uh huh.' 'Sure.' 'Go on.' Words and phrases such as these let the speaker know that you are following and understanding what they are saying. Their other purpose is to encourage the speaker to continue expressing themselves.
Here is an example conversation:
Victor: I like to think it's normal to fight with your fiancé a lot during the stressful time of planning a wedding.
Gus: Yes. Sure.
Victor: After all, you both have to agree and compromise on many different decisions. You're bringing two families together, and the financial stress...don't even get me started on that!
This process involves putting the content of the speaker's message into your own words. This helps the speaker know that you are understanding the subject matter of which they are speaking. It also helps the listener confirm that they are correctly understanding the material that is being discussed.
Here's an example conversation:
Caleb: I'm afraid to show my report card to my mom. Out of my seven classes, I'm passing only two of them!
Daphne: (looking concerned) You're failing a majority of your classes.
Caleb: Exactly, and I know my mom is going to freak out...
This requires a bit more work for the reflective listener than merely reflecting content because it requires the listener to 'listen for' feelings behind the speaker's content. If the speaker is verbally expressing a feeling, the listener is reflecting those feelings back to the speaker in the listener's own words.
Here's an example conversation:
Terrah: When I saw Rufus lifeless on the ground, I couldn't hold back. I burst into tears. I've had that dog since I was three years old.
Brooke: You were distraught and heartbroken.
Terrah: Yeah (reflecting on these feelings). I loved that dog so much.
Reflecting listening statements that reflect meaning behind the speaker's words require more effort and skill because they require the listener to look beyond the surface of what the speaker is verbally expressing.
Here's an example conversation:
Rick (to his therapist): I never expected to be the sole breadwinner when I married Susan. When we dated, we always talked about being a dual-income married couple and enjoying the financial successes that came from that. Now, I'm feeling so financially strapped and stressed with her decision to be a stay-at-home mom. I'm so angry with her every day.
Therapist: You're feeling resentful towards Susan because you don't feel like she is contributing enough towards the family and household.
After the speaker has expressed themselves for a certain period of time, the listener can use reflective statements to summarize what has been said. This helps the speaker feel like their entire message has been heard and understood by the speaker.
The best kind of reflective listening statement identifies the speaker's feelings and needs and/or wants.
Let's look at Example 1:
Ellie: I have been loosing sleep thinking about what I did to Craig. Why did I have to have such poor judgment?
Kate: You're feeling immense guilt and wish you could go back in time and take back what you did.
Ellie: Exactly, if only I could get a second chance. I don't know if I will ever be able to forgive myself.
Now, let's take a look at Example 2:
Oliver: I wake up each day, go to work for 12 hours, come home and help with the kids, and hardly get to spend any time with Grace. Not to mention that I have no time for myself!
Leo: So you're feeling stuck, exhausted, and frustrated about your daily routine and just want more time for your marriage and yourself.
Reflective listening involves being fully present with the speaker, refraining from talking about oneself or giving advice, and using reflective statements that assure the speaker that you are understanding their feelings, thoughts, and needs. Reflective listening is a skill that requires empathy for the speaker, as well as a desire for the speaker to feel heard, understood, and cared for.
There are five type of reflective listening statements:
- Acknowledging responses
- Reflecting content
- Reflecting feelings
- Reflecting meaning
Reflective listening statements that note the speaker's feelings, needs, and desires are ideal.
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