Reflection, Reflective Listening And Some Other Terms

One of the problems when dealing with communication as a subject is that various authors sometimes use the same term to mean something different. This is especially true of the word reflection. To avoid confusion, I have decided to use the term ‘reflection’, but never on its own and always with a qualifier to indicate what is being reflected. So, when speaking of reflection as an activity to reflect on your own functioning, I use the term ‘self-reflection’. In terms of listening skills, I use three terms: Literal reflection, when actual words are repeated; reflection of emotions, when dealing with the feelings we observe in our conversational partner; and reflection of meaning, when we interpret what someone may mean by what they have just said.

Literal reflection

When you use a literal reflection, you repeat a few words the other has just said. These are exactly or almost the same as the original words spoken. They are not framed as a question, so your voice goes down at the end of the literal reflection. For example, a woman complains about her husband: ‘He never does anything nice for me!’ You could say: ‘Never’. If your voice were to go up at the end, she would see it as a question and could explain what she means by ‘never’. Sometimes that is also exactly what you want, but then it would be a follow-through question, not a literal reflection. By letting your voice go down at the end you are only saying that you have heard it (and hopefully the other notices what exactly they have just said); i.e. a literal reflection doesn’t require any further explanation from the other.

In other words, a literal reflection’s aim is more than simply to let the other know that you are listening, it is also to make them aware of what exactly they are saying. It loses its effect when overused, so use it sparingly and stick to important matters.

Reflecting emotions

You also show that you understand the impact of what’s happening by giving attention to another’s emotions. By mentioning the emotions you observe and by following through on them, you stimulate them to tell more than just the facts. The difficulty someone experiences in their life seldom lies in the facts, but in the emotions these facts draw out of them. Here, too, keep the balance right. Stand-up comics have a ball mocking psychologists who repeatedly ask ‘And how do you feel about that?’ after every sentence their client gives. Justly so. Note, though, that this is a question, not the reflection of an emotion.

So just like a literal reflection, reflecting an emotion isn’t a question either. Neither is it an opinion, such as: ‘That seems quite painful to me’. The opinion is about you, not the other. It’s not that you may never give your opinion; in this case it does show some compassion for what the other is going through. But more powerful is when you recognize the emotion the other is dealing with and reflect that: ‘You seem quite angry about that. Is that so?’ and ‘While listening to you I notice that what you’re telling me makes you sad. Do I see that correctly?’ The essence of the reflection of an emotion is that you tell the other how you see their current emotional experience.

The questions after each reflection of emotion (‘Is that so?’, ‘Do I see that correctly?’ and so forth) are a good addition, as they give the other the opportunity to correct you if your observation has missed the mark, or if you have misunderstood something they have said. An accurate reflection of emotion not only shows the other you are listening attentively; it is often a step-up (or step-over) from talking about facts to talking about emotions.

Both a literal reflection and the reflection of an emotion become effective when they are appropriate and used frequently yet sparingly. Not everything the other says needs mirroring. So use it when it’s about something important.

Reflecting meaning

Reflecting meaning means that somehow you manage to capture what the underlying message is (in terms of meaning) in what the other is saying. It goes a step further than only the emotion: It touches on what the impact is on their life. Probably the best technique to do this is via the Socratic dialogue, a subject to be dealt with in a future post.

In summary: Listening is more than just hearing. To be able to listen properly you need to pay attention to the client’s story. Next to an active listening attitude, a number of supporting techniques may be used to show the client that you are listening attentively. Occasionally using techniques such as literal reflection and reflecting the emotions of your conversational partner gives them the feeling they are heard.

Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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