While active listening tends to take center stage, reflective listening can prove just as important during a discussion. Reflective listening plays a very different — but an often equally critical — role in conversations. Strong communicators must learn and use both types of listening.
Read on for more details about reflective listening along with several tips to help you master this vital communications practice.
The Basics of Reflective Listening
Unlike active listening, in which you focus on what someone says so you can respond thoughtfully, reflective listening places your perspective on the back burner as you respond to your conversation partner. This allows you to respond in a way that lets that person delve deeper into — and better articulate — their own thoughts.
During a conversation, people often face a strong temptation to jump in with their own viewpoints and thoughts. However, that’s not the role of a reflective listener. As the name implies, reflective listening requires you to reflect the speaker’s thoughts and feelings back at them to probe into the how and why of those thoughts and feelings.
When to Use Reflective Listening
Reflective listening provides an appropriate tool in certain circumstances, such as when emotions run high on one side of the conversation and your conversation partner expresses a desire for you to listen to them. Reflective listening also can prove useful in situations in which you take time to listen to someone’s perspective on something without the implication that you will then try to give them advice.
Tips for Practicing Reflective Listening
While people use reflective listening less often than other communication techniques, such as active listening, it’s just as important. Your role as a reflective listener is to act as a sounding board for your conversation partner. This will help both of you achieve a higher level of understanding of your discussion topic.
Because it may not feel intuitive to have a conversation in which you refrain from sharing your perspective, learning to be a reflective listener usually takes practice. Like any other communication tool, you’ll find reflective listening can improve both your professional and personal relationships once you learn to use it effectively.
Moreover, reflective listening can help you more easily pinpoint the heart of a problem with a colleague or get to know a new friend at a social event. Both of them will leave the conversation feeling like you really listened to them and tried to understand their perspective, making you a trusted and respected confidant.
Focus on Your Partner
Listening effectively — whether you ultimately plan to reply or reflect — requires giving your conversation partner your complete attention. You want to ensure you hear and understand what the other person says. While it may seem silly to point this out, people often have conversations in which they fail to provide their full attention. Yet, focusing on the person speaking is an essential part of reflective listening. To do this, try to minimize the distractions around you by:
- Turning your phone to “silent” mode and placing it facedown during conversations.
- Meeting your conversation partner in a quiet place.
- Keeping your body angled toward your conversation partner.
Avoid Rushing a Conversation
Used correctly, reflective listening techniques will prompt your conversation partner to think more deeply about the discussion topic and focus on accurately articulating their viewpoint and perspective. Of course, this may mean they may need to pause frequently to organize their thoughts and decide how to frame things. Give them that space by making yourself comfortable with pauses in the conversation. By giving your conversation partner a moment to think in silence, you can actually encourage them to speak more than if you respond immediately.
Rephrase and Repeat Important Points
One of the most crucial components of reflective listening is learning to take what your conversation partner says and reflect it back to them in your own words. Checking in like this throughout your conversation not only demonstrates that you’re listening and understanding, but also gives your conversation partner the opportunity to clarify anything they didn’t express clearly. This approach also helps them to delve more deeply into the discussion topic with your assistance.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships or conversations dealing with feelings, reflecting back what a speaker just said gains even more importance. Why? Because people often struggle to accurately articulate their feelings using a somewhat sparse vocabulary for complex, human feelings. Giving someone a chance to elaborate on their emotional state in a non-judgemental setting can vastly improve the quality of your conversation as well as your overall relationship with your conversation partner.
Here are a few guiding phrases that can help you reflect your conversation partner’s key points back to them:
- “You’re feeling that … ”
- “You’re saying that … ”
- “It seems like … ”
- “As I understand it, you … ”
Pay Attention to Nonverbal Information
A person’s body language and tone can tell you a lot about how they feel toward a specific discussion topic. If you only listen to the words they say, you’ll miss a vast amount of information. In any conversation, be sure to note the nonverbal communication going on. Nonverbal information takes on even greater importance in conversations focused on feelings, which often require a reflective listening approach. If you’re unsure how to decipher nonverbal information, check out this article.
Demonstrate Your Interest
You also can use body language to help show your conversation partner you’re listening to them. For example, keep your eyes on the speaker instead of staring at other things, nod as they speak, and angle your body toward them. Some aspects of reflective listening already lend themselves to demonstrating your interest in a conversation, such as asking reflective questions. However, you also should use other methods to verbally demonstrate interest like making small acknowledgement responses to show your partner you’re following along as they speak.
Here are common acknowledgement responses you can use to demonstrate your interest:
- “Go on.”
- “I see.”
Summarize the Conversation
While a reflective listener constantly asks questions during a conversation to further clarify the speaker’s thoughts, summarizing those key points at the end can still prove useful. This demonstrates your attentive listening and gives you another chance to make sure you both leave the conversation on the same page. It also provides space to address any potential issues or miscommunications before you pursue next steps.