Reflective or Active Listening is an essential skill of artful and effective communication. Like any new skill, it requires practice to develop into a natural component of how we relate to others. Although many of us would say that we listen to others, the quality of that listening allows or disallows the person who is speaking to be heard or not. Hearing is a sensory ability – listening is a developed skill.
As you learn to listen more deeply, apart from your own agenda, you will find that the capacity for true understanding expands significantly. Active listening promotes a spirit of partnership, trust and authenticity that becomes the foundation of real growth potential. It is the pathway for engaging others in relationship and fostering motivation to change.
How often have we engaged in conversation, shared some deeply personal experience for example, only to feel unheard? Perhaps the listener is distracted or shifts focus onto himself by relating a similar story. He might interrupt or cut you off with a comment that shows he is not really listening to what you have said. When this occurs, what happens to our willingness to risk sharing our private truth with another? Chances are that opportunity is lost, falling “on deaf ears”, and the speaker becomes less inclined to attempt to communicate those feelings again.
In reflective listening, the listener puts his full attention on the words of the speaker. He does not interrupt at the first opening, but allows the speaker space to share fully. When the speaker pauses, the listener resists the temptation to fill the pause with commentary, perhaps honoring a moment of silence. Silence gives permission for acceptance, insight, softening, trust. Then, the listener might ask “Is there anything else?” to give the speaker permission to consider saying more. When the listener is sure the speaker is finished, summing up what the speaker said and repeating it back to the speaker is the fundamental ingredient in reflective listening. Paraphrasing, re-framing or clarifying distinctions not only demonstrates to the speaker that you've been paying close attention, but also allows the speaker to hear for himself what he has just said. This piece of listening is so valuable - it validates the speaker's feelings and helps them to sort out what they have just said and also helps the listener to confirm what they believe the speaker is attempting to convey. The listener could say something like “It sounds like you're saying ________.” or “What I hear you saying is_______. Is that right?”
Reflective listening keeps the focus on the speaker. Of course, it is important for both or all people in a discussion to feel heard, so taking turns with roles of speaker and listener makes sense. However, if the speaker has proposed the topic and has a greater need to speak, the listener can agree to stay in that role for the speaker's benefit. The main idea is to clearly demonstrate caring and concern for the speaker's agenda. All too often, messages are not adequately conveyed, not for lack of trying but for lack of skillful listening. Reflective listening requires empathy, focused attention and practice, challenging for even the very best communicators in a fast-paced culture. However, setting the intention to listen well at the outset of dialogue can allow the listener to give the gift of being heard.
Take a moment to think about the various relationships you each have that could benefit from active listening? Relationships between parents and children, siblings, coworkers, friends, romantic partners, neighbors, and community leaders could all be dramatically improved with better listening.
So, the next time someone is speaking, take the time to sit down, look them in the eye and set your own agenda aside. It is truly one of the best gifts you can give to the people in your life.
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.