Listening Skills Responding Reflectively

Effective listeners are not born good listeners, they learn how to listen. In this post we will explore how responding reflectively is an important listening skill... not the way most of us do it, is it?

Reflection, or reflective response technique, borrowed from counseling techniques, is designed to elicit as full a sense as possible of the speaker's thoughts and feelings. It is a way of helping someone explore their own personal meanings. This technique involves reflecting back to the speaker what you believe she has said in order to verify (or clarify) your understanding and to encourage the speaker to continue elaborating on her point of view. An active listener is already using aspects of this technique, but reflection requires taking even greater care in the following areas: 

Reflect the speaker's thoughts and feelings. Restate what you believe the speaker has said to check for the accuracy of your understanding (e.g., "So you couldn't finish the assignment on time." "Then you think the time allotted was inadequate?"). Even more importantly, reflect back the speaker's feelings as you have heard or inferred them (e.g., "You seem to feel anxious because you couldn't finish the assignment on time."). This interpretation of feelings is, of course, more tricky in that it often requires you to read between the lines, to infer feelings underlying what has been said.

Respond rather than lead the conversation. Let the speaker's thoughts' and feelings be your guide in the conversation. Don't guide the conversation by asking questions or interjecting ideas or suggestions that take the speaker into new areas of interest to you.

Respond to feelings, rather than content. As suggested earlier, feelings are generally a better indication of personal meanings than content is. Thus you will help the speaker's self-exploration more by responding to her feelings (e.g., "So you resent Susan's frequent absences?") than to the content (e.g., "How often was Susan out of the office?") “So you like food with a lot of flavor” as opposed to “We have lots of spicy oils!”​

Reflective vs. Directive Responses

Obviously, this reflective technique is not always appropriate to the circumstances and to your needs or purposes. At times you may want to be more directive and less reflective in your interactions. You may want to argue, advise, or confront. Thus once you have learned to use the reflective mode of listening, you need to consider when to use it, when to shift from that mode to a more directive mode, and when not to be reflective at all. Here are some reasons and times for using this reflective technique:

  • When you need or want to understand the other person's feelings more completely.
  • When you sense that the other person has not yet revealed his thoughts and feelings about the situation.
  • When you sense that the other person is not sure of his true feelings

Thus active listening with reflective responses is often the first stage of an interaction. Then, once you feel you really understand the person's perspective, you can switch to a more directive or confrontational or persuasive stance. Here, you can lead as well as respond and speak from your own frame of reference as well as the other person's.

You Need a Bit More than a Blog Post to Master Listening Skills


Poor communication on the job is like a vampire that sucks out resources, leaving behind: too many mistakes too much misunderstanding,

  • infighting an open resentment,
  • back-stabbing,
  • micromanagement
  • fear
  • turnover
  • and losses. 

So I am giving a half price discount on my Uncorporate Academy's Online Course on How to Listen Like a Leader, Respond and Be Listened to, what one student called "an interesting, helpful, and lively class on what could have been a boring subject."

About the Author

Dan Strongin works with medium to small companies, helping them master the art and science of managing.

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