When people fail to listen reflectively, they often respond to misunderstood messages.
If we want to communicate effectively, we have to listen to the messages hidden beneath the spoken word. Reflective listening is not always required for understanding. When people are open, in rapport and having a good time, then reflective listening isn't necessary. But when people are emotional, defensive, upset, or confused, then reflective listening becomes the number one tool for helping them to sort out their emotions and problems. Let me give you an example of how reflective listening works. . .
I once had a student who kept having the same fight with his sister. He would tell his sister, “The guy you're with is a jerk. "
She would respond by defending her boyfriend, and they'd end each discussion with a huge yelling match.
They kept circling around the same argument, never taking the time to truly understand what the other was saying. I asked this student to role-play with me, so that I could respond reflectively to what he was telling his sister. The conversation we had went something like this:
He said, “That guy you're with is a jerk. "
I responded, “You think my boyfriend acts like a jerk?"
"Yes, he treats you rotten. The other day, he was laughing about you in front of everyone, and you just let him get away with it. "
"You're upset because you think he treats me bad?"
"Yes, he's always making eyes at other women and showing you disrespect. You deserve better. "
"You think that he isn't good enough for me? You're afraid that I'm settling for the wrong guy?"
"Yeah, give him his walking papers, you'd be better off. "
"You're worried about what will happen to me if I stay with him?"
As the conversation continued, we both began to glimpse the real message that he was trying to send his sister. His real message had nothing to do with the jerky boyfriend. What my student was trying to communicate was his love and concern for his sister, as well as his desire to see her get the best. He didn't care about the boyfriend. His real fear was that his sister didn't know her own value. They'd both been arguing about the boyfriend, when the real issues at stake were love and self-worth.
In a nutshell, here are the five tools of effective listening:
_1. Watch body language. Are the people with whom you are speaking open and ready to share? Or, are they warning you of obstacles ahead? If you see green body language then go for it, keep talking. People are listening. They're open. They're having fun. They see value in what you have to say. But if they're sending out yellow, or red signals then don't waste your time talking because they aren't listening. When someone's body language says caution, you need to use the second tool of listening.
_2. You notice their emotions. How are they feeling? Frustrated? Needy? Bored? Disbelieving? Helplessness? Desperate? People who are feeling emotional are not at their logical best. They often say and do things that they might otherwise regret. So, if people are emotional, don't expect them to make sense. Just acknowledge their emotions and help them to be clear about how they feel.
_3. If you notice defensiveness, then you need to use the third tool of listening, reflection. Ask yourself what their defensiveness says about them, and try not to worry about how their defensiveness affects you. Remember that when people are defensive and emotional, they are not talking about you; they are talking about themselves and how they are being affected by you.
_4. Next, notice their words and reflect upon their possible connotative meanings. Sometimes meanings are obvious. Sometimes, people say that they're desperate to see you because they really are just desperate to see you. But sometimes, people say that they're desperate to see you because they can't stand being alone. You'll never know how to respond to what you take in unless you confirm the accuracy of your understanding, so you must always continue to the fifth step of communication.
_5. Paraphrase. Restate what you understood, so that you can confirm that you received their words correctly. Paraphrasing also shows people that you are really trying to understand them, not just fix them. Always paraphrase. Don't ever assume that you got the message right until the sender has confirmed it. And be sure that you don't just repeat their words back. If you do, you'll sound like a thoughtless and irritating parrot. You must respond with the reflected meaning coupled with an acknowledgment of their emotions.
Reflective listening requires practice, a sense of humor, perspective, and a real desire to understand another human being. So the next time a friend of yours is having a crisis, instead of immediately telling him or her what you would do, try keeping your opinions to yourself and don't confuse an already flustered person with what you think. Instead, concentrate on reflecting back whatever you hear them say. Simply help people to listen to their own often-confused words. As you continue to listen and reflect, you will begin to help them understand their own confusion, until at last they reach a position where they are able to think calmly, logically and honestly about their situation, as well as begin to ask for solutions. . .
From A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, by Lynn Marie Sager copyright 2005
You can find much more about communication, reflection, and influence on Navigating Life's website, including exercises for practice. Simply go to http://www.navigatinglife.org , and visit Boarding for links to our full lessons on each.
Lynn Marie Sager has toured over two-dozen countries and worked on three continents. Author of A River Worth Riding: Fourteen Rules for Navigating Life, Lynn currently lives in California; where she fills her time with private coaching, public speaking, and teaching for the LACCD and Pierce College. She runs the Navigating Life website, where she offers free assistance to readers who wish to incorporate the rules of worthwhile living into their lives. To read more about how you can use these rules to improve your life, visit Lynn's website at http://www.navigatinglife.org