Provision #330: Listen Reflectively

Laser Provision

Listen reflectively. This listening skill, where we paraphrase what someone else is trying to express, can bring your attention back to the conversation at hand, assist people to clarify what they are trying to say, and move things forward in a positive direction. But like all skills, reflective listening is a use-it or lose-it proposition. Don’t forget to exercise that muscle this week.

LifeTrek Provision

Last week we began our series on the Ten Keys to Better Listening by encouraging you to listen actively. This means that you listen with both ears, fully present, suspending your own need to talk in order to accommodate the listening needs of others.

We call this active listening to distinguish it from two other forms: apathetic and aggressive listening. With apathetic listening, we give the speaker our halfhearted attention. Our ears are present but our mind is not. Tuned in to another station, we can be a millions miles away even if the person we are listening to is sitting right in front of us.

With aggressive listening, we give the speaker our opportunistic attention. We listen for those bits and pieces of facts and reasoning with which we can argue and dispute. Like a debater waiting to give a rebuttal speech, our listening stops once we hear something upon which we can base our case. The wheels start turning as we look for an opportunity to pounce.

What kind of listener are you? Chances are, if you’re like most people, you have experience with all three listening styles as well as every shade along the spectrum. At different times and places, we adopt apathetic, active, and aggressive stances based upon our mood, orientation, attitudes, and perceptions.

When we have a lot at stake, we may become more aggressive. When we are tired or bored, we may become more apathetic. But when we have a personal stake in how the speaker feels and what the speaker is sharing, we become more active and engaged.

Many a bride reports that everything changed after her wedding day. The attentive man she knew during courtship, with wonderful active listening skills, disappeared. In his place emerged an at times apathetic and at other times aggressive listener who had the body but not the caring of the man she married. When this continues unchecked, for any length of time, it’s no surprise that the marriage ends up stressed and even headed for divorce.

Fortunately, there are ways to turn this around. Active listening is, first and foremost, a choice. When we want to be fully present and attentive to someone, most of us know how to do that. It’s just that we often find ourselves distracted by or driven to other interests.

When we find ourselves drifting in the direction of either apathy or aggression, one way to bring ourselves back around is to listen reflectively. This is when we try to paraphrase what we heard the other person express with an opening line such as, “I hear you saying that….” In this way, we become a sounding board in which the other person can hear themselves better.

This simple listening skill, taken to the extreme, has sometimes become the butt of jokes, as though the conversation goes nowhere and becomes absurd. “I put the laundry in the washing machine.” “I hear you saying that you put the laundry in the washing machine.” “Yes, you heard me say that I put the laundry in the washing machine.” “I hear you saying that you heard me say that you put the laundry in the washing machine.” And so on ad infinitum.

But in real life, this listening skill is no joke at all. In fact, failing to hear and “get” what another person is trying to express is often the starting point for a total breakdown in communication. We make assumptions and find ourselves responding to something altogether different, untoward, or inappropriate.

I remember coaching one couple who were having communication problems. The husband was in a high-pressure position of responsibility that left him with precious little energy for his wife and family. She never felt as though she had her husband’s undivided attention.

So I suggested that we employ the reflective listening skill. “Just say back what you hear your wife say,” I instructed the husband when it was his turn to listen. The instructions seemed simple enough.

And so the wife began, “After 18 years of marriage • in fact, since our wedding day • I’ve never heard you say the words, ‘I love you.'” The husband became visibly upset. When he thought of all the ways that he had expressed his love for his wife and family over the past 18 years, not the least of which was through the provision of a very affluent lifestyle, he could not believe that his wife would say such thing. He was ready to be an aggressive listener. He was ready to pounce and argue.

But the instructions were clear: listen reflectively. “Take a deep breath,” I told the husband, “and tell your wife what you heard her say.” “OK,” the husband said while turning to his wife, “I heard you say that.” “What did you hear me say?” she asked. “I heard you say that.” “That what?” “That statement.” “Which statement?” “The one you just made.”

Around and around we went. The emotional reaction this man had to his wife’s statement made it impossible for him to repeat her exact words: “I heard you say that in 18 years of marriage, since our wedding day, you have never heard me say, ‘I love you.'” He wanted to protest and defend himself. So we decided to just let him do it.

But once again I asked his wife listen reflectively. Her ability to do this kept the tension between them from circling up around the ceiling. As her husband pointed out all the ways that he had shown his love for her, she reflected them back to him with a simple paraphrase. When he asserted that although he couldn’t exactly remember the last time he said, “I love you,” he was sure that he had said those words at least on occasion during the past 18 years, she reflected that back as well.

Finally, when he was done and it was her turn to share again, she virtually repeated her original statement. “I appreciate all the things you’ve done for us,” she said, and I know you think that you have said ‘I love you.’ But in 18 years of marriage, in fact, since our wedding day, I can’t remember a single time when I heard you say, ‘I love you.'”

This time, having received the gift of reflective listening himself, the husband was finally able to paraphrase and acknowledge his wife’s sentiments. And that made all the difference in the world when it came to moving this couple forward on the path to greater understanding, respect, and love.

That’s the power of reflective listening. If even one person is able to exercise this skill, the situation often moves forward noticeably. When both parties are able to exercise this skill, the situation often becomes open to new possibilities and breakthroughs. Once people feel heard in the context of a conversation, there’s no telling how far and how fast the relationship will move forward.

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself in a conversation that’s spiraling downward rather than upward. Whether it’s personal, professional or political, whether it’s one-on-one or in a small-group setting, whether it’s a matter of facts or feelings, whether the focus is more on productivity or fulfillment, reflective listening can break the logjam and get things moving again.

When you let the other person(s) know that you hear what he, she or they are trying to say, the potential exists for shifting from apathetic and aggressive modes to the active mode. I use and see the power of this skill all the time in my coaching conversations. Often I have to break it down into bits and pieces. “I think I hear you saying three different things,” I may observe, and then I proceed to paraphrase each of them, one at a time, giving my client time to confirm, clarify, or change my understanding of what they are trying to say.

It’s helpful to remember that people often express more than one thought or idea at a time. There are facts and feelings, hopes and dreams, choices and confusion, about the past, present, and future. That alone presents 18 different possibilities in a two-dimensional model (6×3), without even taking into consideration the nuances of a three-dimensional grid. There’s a lot to listen for and reflect!

If you want to become a better listener, then make the choice to listen actively. If you find yourself drifting off, becoming defensive, or feeling hostile, then exercise the muscle of reflective listening. Paraphrase what the other person is trying to express. That simple act can turn a bad situation around more quickly than you might imagine.

Coaching Inquires: Is there someone, right now, with whom you could practice reflective listening? Are the situations in the workplace or in the home that could benefit from reflective listening? What gets in the way of your listening reflectively? How could you exercise this skill more often?

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

From the fact that your bird feeder view is working, I take it that your Internet connection is back and working • finally! (Ed. Note: Yes, we came back on line just one week ago. Thanks for noticing the bird feeder (Click). You may also notice that since the hurricane we have had a dramatic decrease in the number of birds feeding. This was, apparently, more than just a disaster for human habitats!)

What an excellent Provision on Active Listening. Wouldn’t it be neat to heal the world through satisfying, healthy communication!!!! Thanks.

Thanks for sending me Provisions. I retract my wish to be un-subscribed. I love positive people who are into growth and enlightenment, although it may be difficult to tell by my last message. I am on the side of anyone and everyone who is filled with goodness, peace, and joy. I myself am so filled with goodness, peace, and joy that if I felt any better, I’d be twins! I love life and the magnificence of existence. If you are about sharing that with everyone, then I am indeed a great fans of yours, and ever after new ways of sharing that joy with everyone. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran
LifeTrek Coaching International
121 Will Scarlet Lane
Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043

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