My last blog post was a bit of a rant about how hard humans seem to find listening. I believe it is especially hard for most humans to listen carefully and deeply in the presence of pain. Emotional, physical, or spiritual pain can connect to our own painful experiences and any rational human is going to want to avoid or alleviate pain. One way to ease pain–whether our own or that of another–is to say something. While we might have the best of intentions, I believe we serve others better by keeping our mouths shut and listening.
While I believe that keeping my mouth shut and empathetically listening to another are most helpful, I do have a tool to offer if you feel the need to respond to someone. This tool is called “reflective listening.” Reflective listening signals to the other person that you are listening. The speaker knows on a gut level that they have genuinely been heard. This type of listening is a core practice in transformation work because it helps alleviate anxiety and helps people come to their own learning in a conflicted situation.
Reflective listening means listening in order to reflect back to the person what you are hearing. You listen intently to what the other person is saying and how they are saying it. You attend to both content and feeling, for said and unsaid. You observe tone and body language. You maintain appropriate, consistent eye contact and your body language signals to the speaker that you are listening to them with your whole being.
Reflective listening requires bracketing your own “stuff.” You are not trying to correct or problem solve or offer bits out of your own experience. You are listening to order to reflect back what you have heard. You genuinely hear what the other person has said. The experience of genuinely being heard is deeply healing.
Teaching reflective listening in a blog post is a little challenging. I am going to attempt to teach through a sample dialogue.
Person: I am so tired. The baby was up all night teething. At least, I think she is teething.
Me: Gosh, that sounds like a long night.
Person: It sure was. My partner is on a business trip so I am on my own. Two more nights to go.
Me: Not much sleep for you, most likely.
Person: My partner travels a good bit. I sometimes wish for a job change.
Even though I wrote the exchange, it reflects my experience of how people will begin to tell you bits of their story when you indicate that you are listening. Instead of problem-solving (“Have you checked for a fever?”) or offering my own experience (“We gave my son homeopathic drops when he was a baby.”), listen and reflect back the challenges of parenting an infant. Those reflections made space for the speaker to open up further with the statement about wishing for a job change.
Reflective listening requires practice. People are surprisingly consistent in showing you whether or not you are getting it right. You may see a head nodding “yes” or hear the speaker say, “Yes, exactly!” when you are on the mark. The speaker will often say more. If you have missed the mark, the speaker will often correct you with a “No” or a repeated statement or saying the same thing in a slightly different way. Too many failures on the listener’s part and the speaker might change the subject or quit talking.
Give a reflective listening a try–you can do it!