Reflective Listening: A Deeper Look

by | Aug 14, 2015 | Communication Tips, Emotional connection, Listening

Usually when we imagine good communication, we think about how to most effectively (and without harm) get across our point. We plan what we want to say, how we want to say it, and get clear on our intentions.

That’s because we know that listening is important. I mean, we already know we should let the other person finish, and not interrupt.

But too often we forget to ask ourselves: “How do I want to listen?”

Listening is actually the most important part of communication. That is why “reflective listening” is so popular in the topic of communication, whether it be in relationships or in business.

But I want to go beyond reflective listening and explore what I call Radical Listening–a way of listening that allows us to get even deeper in our understanding and evolve our communication to another level.

First, it helps to remember the purpose and benefits of listening.

Why Listening is Important:

  • The way we listen can either give someone the experience of being heard, or it can give someone the experience of being judged, analyzed, “fixed,” dismissed or a host of other experiences. It basically “makes or breaks” our communication and our connection. 
  • Really listening opens you to learn something you didn’t expect to, or possibly go in a different direction than intended. You can learn to let go of judgment and biases that you have about the other person and be present to them and to their communication.
  • For the person being listened to, there is such a sense of relief. This may be all it takes to solve the problem (or create the closeness that will allow them to reciprocate). When we listen truly, our partner not only feels like they are understood, they actually come into fuller being.

Now many of you may say “Yes, I know that already.”

But do you really hear what the person is saying from their point of view, and not yours?

Reflective Listening:

One way to make sure we are truly hearing our partner is called Reflective Listening. This is essentially the act of paraphrasing back to your partner what you heard them say. Your partner can then confirm that you have understood accurately, or correct you.  You repeat this until your partner is satisfied that what you have reflected back to them is what they were in fact saying. Partners alternate and take turns to give each other the space to express themselves.

This is a great technique because it gives us pause: We have to focus exclusively on understanding what our partner is saying, before we respond with our own thoughts or reactions. It prevents misunderstandings, and allows your partner to really feel heard. And that creates goodwill and unity.

While I’m a strong proponent of reflective listening, I think we need to go deeper still in order to fully receive each other, and evolve spiritually with our partners.

Radical Listening:

Radical listening includes reflective listening goes beyond merely accurately reflecting what you have heard your partner say.

It demands not only the ability to pause and paraphrase, it also requires a simultaneous integration  of 1) an awareness of ourselves and our internal reactions, 2) a presence without filters, 3) a willingness to let go of interpretation, and 4) a mental radar that seeks the positive intentions behind what your partner is saying.

If this sounds like a tall order, try just breaking it down and working on one step each conversation. Then slowly you can layer these in until you are fully in “radical listening mode:”

Become aware of your internal process. For example: notice when you judge, analyze, state your opinion, change the subject, drift off, tell your story, offer advice, agree, disagree, or tell them what they should or shouldn’t do.

Give your presence. This basically means undivided attention. Maintain positive eye contact. Show your partner that you are actively engaged in receiving the message being sent. No multi-tasking!  Resist the urge to make comments or to judge anything being said. Just listen. Don’t interrupt. You’ll get to talk later.

Paraphrase it back. This is the reflective listening part: Repeat back what you heard with a minimum of interpretation. Show that you understand what is being said. You don’t need to “parrot” what they say word for word as this tends to sound awkward or annoying, just make sure you really have the basic content of the message and its meaning. For example: “So what I’m hearing is…” (paraphrase without interpreting) or “Let me make sure that I am understanding you correctly…” Let them correct any misunderstanding or interpretation.

Look for positive intent. The speaker is communicating that there is something he/she really cares about. What is it that they really want and why is that important to them? Listen for that concern and their underlying needs and values. Even what might feel like a criticism could be coming from a desire to create a greater connection.

All of this is harder than it sounds and takes practice. But putting these pieces together moves us from merely reflecting to radically listening. This is nothing less than a transformative act!


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