Reflective Listening: the path to understanding

Listening is a search to find the treasure of the true person, as revealed verbally and nonverbally. (John Powell)

In my last post here, I wrote about roadblocks to communication. When listening, “advising” or “reassuring” can undermine good communication and disservice the listener. Having described what not to do, I’ll now draw again upon Bolton’s People Skills to describe what one ought to do. We are coming up to Christmas after all, and while my family is happy to put our differences to the side and play marco polo, I understand we are atypical in this regard.

Bolton argues that the best response a listener can give in intentional communication is “reflective listening”.

Reflective listening: ear, then brain, then heart.

Someone says "1+1" the other reflects "2". They love each other.

Understanding facilitates connection.

What does this buzzphrase, “reflective listening” mean? Bolton breaks it down into paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, reflecting meanings, and offering summative reflections. I think we can make this easier again: reflective listening is listening to understand the speaker’s meanings and emotions, then feeding this back to them, to check your own understanding, to let them know that they are understood, and to illuminate to them their own state. Instead of making a subtractive response – “It’s going to be fine, don’t worry” – or an additive response, “You should just ring up and tell them what you think” – you offer an interchangeable response, one that “reflects the real feelings and specific content of the speaker with approximately the same intensity that they were expressed.”

Reflective listening is valuable for several reasons. Firstly, it allows a listener to check that they have understood the speaker. The day before the Victorian election I was with two others headed to help set up a polling booth when we got stopped on a sidestreet by roadworks. Two of us jumped out of the car, quickly yelling an alternative route to the driver and assuming that he’d use it to come join us. Much later, we’d set up the booth and the driver still hadn’t arrived. I ran back to the spot we’d been stopped and there he was, waiting nervously for our return: “You said you’d come back.” The moral of the story: it often pays to check that communication has been understood. Also, don’t leave your phone in the office.

A picture of a phone

Phones: necessary for quality telecommunication.

Secondly, sometimes the speaker is expressing themselves obliquely, either deliberately or not. Again, reflective listening helps the listener to check if they understand – it also helps the speaker to understand their own self, and to establish trust. You have to feel safe if you are going to talk about what really matters to you, exposing your vulnerabilities in the process. According to Bolton, “empathic reflections which demonstrate understanding and acceptance are much more likely to foster exploration of these important areas.” Reflective listening builds connection and facilitates the speaker to engage with the issue at the heart of their communication.

Finally, reflective listening allows emotional content to be recognised and situated within a communication. If we were always solely rational, life would be easy. It’s precisely because we get emotionally involved that communication becomes challenging – while emotions are essential to understanding ourselves and our values, they can limit our ability to express ourselves or to understand others. “When a person is in the midst of strong emotions,” writes Bolton, “he is not psychologically ready to listen to anyone.” Reflecting back emotions lets the speaker know that you are aware of how they feel about something; it can also help the speaker to know how they themselves feel.

It’s OK to just talk smack

Sometimes I get so caught up trying to do reflective listening I can fall short of listening. Or, the conversation just becomes too much work for me. It’s important to remember that in friendships it’s perfectly OK to just talk smack a lot of the time. If someone says, “Man, I owned you at Quake Live last night”, it would be odd to say, “You feel good that you beat me.” A more natural reaction might be “u r hax0rz.” While he doesn’t give this example, Bolton does point out that “reflective listening is work”, and while it can improve communication, it shouldn’t be employed in every conversation.

Batman confronting a pugilist

Reflective listening is not appropriate to every situation.

And yes, it can feel unnatural at first, even in a suitable context. Becoming aware of better ways of communication can at first cause guilt, then a sense of phoniness as you make initial attempts at using better means. After time and practice, you can become skillful at avoiding roadblocks and using reflective communication, but you’re still conscious of it and it’s a deliberate process. Finally, it can eventually become integrated, happening “well and without conscious awareness.” Communication skills are like skills, and acquiring them takes practice, and it’s unreasonable to expect instantly to be communicating as fluidly as Danny MacAskill does wicked-sick bike tricks. To make things easier, People Skills has a lot of highly-practical instruction to help you develop these skills, some of it online here.

Earl Koile:

Demanding clarity about thoughts and feelings before sharing them can be a real problem…What I need is to share my jumbled-up inner dialogue with someone who can hear, and in listening, can help me to hear myself. With help, I may find release from the captivity of my own words and touch delicate, frightening, or otherwise eclipsed feelings within me.

I love reflective listening and I think it’s because I love quality listening. I think it’s essential to healthy relationships, and better groupwork and communication in general. It helps us to understand others better; being listened to well helps us to better understand ourselves.


  1. Assertion: Safely meeting needs | Scit Necessitas - January 18, 2015

    […] Skills, Robert Bolton discusses assertion in detail (as well as roadblocks to communication and reflective listening), proposing a model, describing a process, and outlining considerations for suitability. While […]

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