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Four Steps to Reflective Listening

March 20, 2024

Many moons ago, I was a director of a girl’s leadership program that worked with teen girls in rural northwestern Minnesota. It was a fantastic program that provided teens with life skills. One of the skills we taught was reflective listening. I still use this important communication skill today. 

One evening, my daughter called me in tears. Things in her life were not going well, and she felt hurt and upset. Before I knew how to use reflective listening, I would want to solve her problems for her.  I would be listening to her sad voice, hearing my child in anguish. I wanted to ride in on my white horses to save the day! I am the hero! Yet, when I behaved that way, am I saving the day? Or am I just bolstering my ego and shutting down the uncomfortable emotional response within myself to return to the all-to-familiar comfort zone? 

How often do you sit and listen to another person without offering advice or shutting down the emotions of others that might make you feel uncomfortable? Reflective listening takes self-awareness, silence, and courage to hold the space for another person. When that occurs, true transformation can occur on the other side of the conversation.

How can you practice reflective listening?

Step 1 Know what reflective listening is and what it is not. Reflective listening is taking in the emotions, body language, and words with your heart. Letting go of any judgment about the person or the situation. Reflective listening starts first with your self-awareness. What is getting in the way of truly listening to this person with your whole heart? Acknowledging this obstruction and gently moving it to the side as you become more present.

Step 2Slow down your response and come to a place of calm. Slow it all down and get quiet. Sometimes, you must be in the right frame of mind to fully listen. That is okay; just gently let the person know you want to listen to them with your full attention. Ask if they could come back or wait until you finish the task. I would say to my student, who wanted my full attention, “I can’t fully listen to you right now, and would you be willing to wait for 2 minutes while I finish my task? Then I will listen to you.”

Step 3Find a place where you can be fully present and listen. In the situation with a student, I would move either to a quieter corner of the room or step out in the hallway, propping the door open to have the conversation. It is essential that you have as few distractions as possible. Once the person is speaking, I would occasionally stop them and check in, repeating what I heard and asking, “Did I get that right?” This pause will give them time to acknowledge what they said or correct you. Another way to discover more information is to ask them, “Tell me more about that.” Once the person has calmed down, you can wonder if they feel a specific emotion. Then, confirm that you understand how they might be feeling that way. 

Step 4Positive talk only! Focus on the positive things the student has told you. You may want to give advice now; however, advice-giving is actually negative talk when the person has not asked for advice. You can check in with the person to ask if they want advice. “I have a few ideas. Can I share them with you now, or would you like me to save them for another time?” is a good question. Asking if they would like advice is being respectful of the person. If they say “No,” then honor the request. (You can also read my post on how to accept NO, here

Write your ideas down and save them until they need your input. When giving a suggestion, make sure that it’s positive and not in the “you should do this” attitude. We all have too much “shoulding” on ourselves and don’t need to add to someone else’s “should” pile.

Who does this process work for?

Everyone who is able to have a conversation! Ready to help a three-year-old share a toy? Practice your reflective listening. Have a partner who is not happy with a situation? Practice reflective listening. If you run into an old friend who has gone through a tough time, practice reflective listening. Reflective listening may look easy; however, once you start to do it, you will experience how counterintuitive it is to our usual communication style.

Reflective listening takes practice, and being authentic about listening can take many years of practice! Oprah said that, after thousands of interviews, she could boil it down to the fact that all humans want three things: to be seen, heard, and understood. Reflective listening gives the people in your life the gift of all three!