What Is Reflective Listening?

E. Reeder

Reflective listening, also known as active listening, is a communication technique in which listeners are focused on what the speakers say and provide reassurance that they hear and understand. The ultimate goal of reflective listening is for speakers to know that the people to whom they are talking understand and empathize with what they are saying. In this way, speakers are encouraged more so than in normal conversations to more fully express their thoughts and beliefs and, ultimately, to come up with their own solution or resolution to their problems.

Reflective listening shows that a listener hears and understands what's being said.
Reflective listening shows that a listener hears and understands what's being said.

This type of communication is useful in a variety of situations and is intended to validate the speaker as a person as well as to show acceptance of his or her thoughts and feelings. It can be useful for therapists and counselors to use as their clients explore their feelings and problems and devise solutions to them. This type of listening also can be used in professional settings between colleagues and between supervisors and their subordinates. Spouses, others in intimate relationships, and friends also can employ reflective listening to enhance their relationships by improving communication.

Maintaining eye contact is important when listening to someone speak.
Maintaining eye contact is important when listening to someone speak.

To use reflective listening, listeners should use direct eye contact and open body language while listening to speakers and paying attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues. The point of active listening is to concentrate on what speakers are saying and what they need, so listeners should avoid the temptation of criticizing, offering advice or explaining what they are thinking and feeling. Instead, as speakers talk, listeners should use techniques such as rephrasing what they thought they heard — "It sounds as if you’re saying you are frustrated with your boss and what she is demanding of you.” They also may ask clarifying questions if they do not quite understand — “What exactly do you mean when you say you are over feeling sympathetic toward him?” Listeners also may ask probing questions that spur speakers to verbalize solutions and take responsibility — “What are you thinking of doing to resolve your conflict?”

Listeners often use communication techniques that run counter to this type of listening, which can be counterproductive and actually increase the speaker's feelings of frustration and being misunderstood. Judging, not paying close attention to what is being said, minimizing the feelings of speakers, offering unwanted advice, and listeners explaining thoughts and feelings at inappropriate times are all examples of communication that runs counter to the goals of reflective listening. If true reflective listening has taken place, speakers should feel validated and that listeners have heard and thoughtfully reflected on what they said and felt.

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Discussion Comments


@Soulfox -- If you want to get technical about it (and who doesn't?) then reflective listening has been around for a very long time. Counselors and therapists merely helped refine and adapt the technique for use in their careers.

But, techniques that validate the importance of the speaker have been around as long as spoken language itself.


Reflective, or active, listening is useful for counselors and therapists? Heck, I do believe those are the very folks who developed the technique so they could do their jobs better. That technique is a little bit more than merely useful, then. It is downright essential.

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