Active and Reflective Listening
Active and reflective listening share similarities, yet they differ in their focus and approach and are two distinct listening techniques used when we help people by listening to their problems and supporting them in their day to day challenges.
What Active Listening is not
We know when we are being truly listened to. That is to say, when the other person is fully engaged and interested in what we have to say. We also know when the listener is not really giving us their full or even partial attention! Active listening involves giving others our full attention and demonstrating an interest in what they are saying. We are not interrupting, finishing sentences off for them, and looking over their shoulder, glancing away from them or fidgeting whilst they speak. Despite the temptation to butt in with our own anecdotes, we do not. We are quiet until it makes sense to speak.
Non-verbal and verbal cues
Instead, we are using our non-verbal cues to show engagement and empathy, such as maintaining eye contact, nodding, and congruent body language. Collectively known a paralinguistics; tone, accent, pitch, volume, speech rate, modulation, and fluency, these verbal cue are also key features of communication theory. In other words, these cues are not what we say, but the way we say it. Usually, in effective Listening therapy it’s not the quantity of words that has an impact, but their quality and the way they are expressed.
‘Non-active’ listening in friendship
I have a friend whom I see once or twice a year, who frequently does two things when we talk face-to-face. When we go for a walk, for example, she will ask me a question about my life or ask for my opinion, but before I have finished answering, often interrupts me with a different question or an entirely different piece of loosely related information of her own. She does not wait until I’ve finished speaking to move on to the next topic. Sometimes, despite my awareness and analysis of this behaviour, I can find this disconcerting.
The other non-verbal behaviour she often expresses is an unreadable face. Although not cold as she is quite a dynamic person, her facial expressions simply do not match as a response to important information I give her when it is shared between us. Added to these habits that she has embedded over the years, is breaking eye contact during key conversations, and suddenly looking away at something else entirely.
My friend’s non-verbal cues could be perceived as indifference, boredom or rudeness as I’m very aware when she does it. Thankfully, although I do implement boundaries, I'm also more accepting of others’ … in this instance, let’s call them, quirks, than I used to be. I am also aware of how much I feel safe sharing with this particular friend and when to stop.
Nevertheless, I can still find this quite surprising and abrupt! Her lack of listening and communication skills could give me the impression that she isn’t interested in what I have to say and could leave me feeling frustrated, unheard and unimportant as if what I have to say is of little significance and my thoughts, feelings and opinions don’t matter to her. However, as she and I have been friends for many years, I can easily ‘let it go’ and accept this as part of her behaviour. I don’t take it personally and have learnt to modify my expectations of how she might respond to me. I know her apparent ‘lack of interest’ doesn’t fully reflect her regard for me.
The importance of realistic expectations in friendship
My friend’s lack of listening skills doesn’t really impact my ‘mental wellbeing’ as I have different expectations and relationships with different friends. When I need reassurance, advice, care and authentic connection, I turn to a different set of women in my life who most certainly do have excellent active listening skills. They are self-aware individuals who have great insight into how to make someone feel valued, special and safe.
It is with these trustworthy women that I’m able to share the important, real deeper information in my life and allow myself to be a bit more vulnerable with them because I know that they do have the skills and relationships with me to act in ways that will help rather than hinder and derail me. Perhaps this is something for us all to think about. What kind of friendships do we have? Who are those that really listen? Are we implementing safe boundaries for ourselves when it comes to reaching out to our friends who really ‘get it’ and have the necessary skills to support us? Just a thought.
What Active Listening should look and feel like
Active listening is about the other person. It should feel good and comfortable, safe, validating and supportive. If we do not feel like that, then it is not active listening. For us as listeners, it is not about us and our own ‘been there done that’ experiences. It is not an opportunity to demonstrate our empathy by hijacking the conversation with our own lengthy stories. I think we can all think of people like that!
Active listening is authentic connection through listening with compassion and putting the other person’s experiences first. The focus is on understanding and empathising, holding the space and stepping into the other person’s frame of reference. Active listening is used as a technique to establish rapport and build trust with the other person. It helps them to feel calm and safe and works just as effectively with adults as it does with children.
The focus of Reflective Listening
Reflective listening, on the other hand, involves actively listening to the other person’s experiences, feelings and message and then reflecting back what we’ve heard them say in a concise and accurate manner. The focus of reflective listening is to help clarify the other person’s thoughts and feelings. In this way, we help them explore their feelings and gain further insight into the situation they are describing.
Demonstrating Reflective Listening
To demonstrate reflective listening, we must first be present in the moment and fully focused on the other person. When we listen, we incorporate the skills of active listening, both verbally and non-verbally, without judgement or interruption. Once they have finished speaking, we can reflect back what we’ve heard using our own words, whilst also taking it further through the use of skilled questioning techniques.
In counselling, pastoral, helping work and parenting, this helps confirm to the other person that we’ve been fully listening and we’ve understood clearly and is an essential skill. (This is a crucial component of the counselling process. This technique helps our clients feel heard, understood and validated, whilst we can check our own understanding and insights into their experiences.)
Skills of Reflective Listening
There are many skills we can use to demonstrate effective reflective listening. These include paraphrasing, summarising, clarifying, affirming, and reflecting feelings. Paraphrasing involves restating the other person’s words using different phrasing. Summarising involves giving an overview of what they’ve just said, highlighting key points. Clarifying requires asking questions to ensure that we’ve fully understood their story and experiences. Affirmation is a form of encouragement that communicates we appreciate their openness or effort in exploring a difficult topic, for example. Reflecting feelings involves identifying and empathically reflecting back their emotional state, e.g. ‘That sounds like you’ve really had a lot on your plate recently and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You sound frustrated that you’ve been working so hard to help your family, but don’t seem to be making any progress or feel appreciated. Is that right?’
How do we know if our Reflective Listening skills are working?
Counsellors use various indicators to know if our reflective listening is assisting the therapeutic process. How is our client responding to the reflection? If they confirm that it’s accurate and helpful, and appear more relaxed and open, then clearly this a positive sign that we’re not hindering or blocking our client’s progress. Counsellors must constantly be aware of any ‘change of temperature’ in the room when reflecting back clients' feelings and be prepared to ask for further clarification if we’ve not understood correctly, or our client doesn’t seem to accept our reflective statements.
This is the same for any helping work. Observing and being sensitive to non-verbal communication is a key part of this ‘temperature taking.’ We must also monitor our own feelings when we are listening to and talking with the other person. If we instinctively feel more connected and empathetic towards them, this suggests that our reflective techniques are working and we’re applying them in a skilful way. If something feels ‘off,’ awkward or uncomfortable, perhaps we need to take a look at how we are applying our active and reflective listening skills.
Limitations of Reflective Listening in psychotherapeutic approaches
Reflective listening is used in both directive and non-directive psychotherapeutic approaches, although they are a particularly important aspect of most non-directive approaches such as Rogers’ Person-Centred approach. The approach in which I’m trained.
However, whilst reflective listening can be a powerful tool, it is important to mention that it is not without its limitations. One limitation is that it may be more effective with some than others. For example, those who are more self-aware may benefit more from these open-ended questions, pauses and reflections. While clients with more complex issues may require a more directive approach in which the therapist gives greater verbal guidance such as NLP, ‘research into directivity and non-directivity suggests that listening alone, can be experienced by some clients as frustrating withholding or uncaring […] better outcomes in therapy are associated with greater rather than less, therapist verbal activity.’ (Cooper, 2008, p.145)
Another limitation could be that reflective listening can be time-consuming, particularly if the counsellor needs to reflect back lengthy or complex messages when a client is particularly distressed or talkative. Although, I would argue that holding the space for the client, or anyone, to work through their thoughts and feelings at their own pace is a crucial part of the healing process even if lengthy.
To conclude, active and reflective listening are vital skills for anyone working with those in need in a helping capacity. For parents, understanding how to, and being able to, fully listen to our children is an essential skill that helps us build connection and a deep trusting relationship with our offspring.
Many parents who don’t understand how to listen, who instead tend to placate, rescue, solve or deflect the problem find that they often encounter defensive responses from their children. If you've ever had the exasperated response yelled at you, 'You're not listening to me!' or perhaps you've yelled it yourself, then you'll know that anger and frustration can be a natural response when we feel we’re not being heard or listened to fully.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when someone reaches out to us, if we don’t listen effectively and compassionately in an active or reflective way, this can cause conflict in our relationships, especially with the people closest to us. Relationship counsellors often work with couples whose listening and communication skills have broken down to the point that they're just not really listening to each other anymore. This is totally avoidable with a few of these active and reflective listening techniques explored above. I shall be exploring a few blocks to listening in more detail in my next blog post.