The Tool of Reflective Listening

The two previous blogs, both on the topic of conscious communication, provide a framework for the more practical information that follows. If you have not read those you might consider it before continuing.

The most powerful tool available in the practice of conscious communication, at least in my experience, is reflective listening. It’s also the most simple. First I’ll explain what reflective listening is, then I’ll suggest some ways to use it.

To listen “reflectively” is simply to say back to the person you are communicating with what they have said to you, as much as possible in their own words. That’s it. For example:

Person A: I love the sound of the birds in the springtime.

Person B: You love the sound of the birds in the springtime.

Simple, right? This may not look like much of a tool at first glance, but I promise you that it can be incredibly powerful. For example, lets say you come home from work and your spouse says: “I hate it when you don’t clean up after yourself in the kitchen. It’s so inconsiderate!” What are you likely to do? Get defensive? Make him/her wrong in some way? Both? Here’s how that might look (very simplistically):

A: I hate it when you don’t clean up after yourself in the kitchen. It’s so inconsiderate!

B: I’m not being inconsiderate! And you don’t clean up after yourself too sometimes!

Sound familiar at all? Consider the difference between that and this:

A: I hate it when you don’t clean up after yourself in the kitchen. It’s so inconsiderate!

B: I see. You are saying that you hate it when I don’t clean up after myself, and you feel it’s inconsiderate.

What does this accomplish? In the first place and most importantly, it provides a way to respond without conditioning. You are just saying back what was said, without anything of your own, and this eliminates the obvious opening for conditioned mind to take advantage of the situation, as in the first exchange. It gives you time and space to disidentify, and, potentially, to respond from your heart. In addition it communicates to the other person that they have been heard. In most cases that’s all we really want, anyway. We don’t really care about the dishes or whatever the issue is. We just want the other person to understand and accept how we feel. Reflective listening provides a way to offer both these things.

Here’s a more complex scenario to consider. Let’s say you are having a serious talk with your spouse and he/she says, “I feel like we’re growing distant. I worry that you don’t love me any more.” Obviously, this is an important moment and some skillful communication would be good. What would be the typical response? How about this:

A: I feel like we’re growing distant. I worry that you don’t love me any more.

B: Don’t say that! Of course I love you!

The thing about this response is that it does exactly what person A is concerned about: it creates distance and does not demonstrate love. It is not loving to invalidate another person’s feelings and make them wrong. See what you think of this instead:

A: I feel like we’re growing distant. I worry that you don’t love me any more.

B: Oh! Thank you very much for telling me that. What I hear you saying is that you feel like we are growing distant, and you worry that I don’t love you any more. Have I got that right?

This, to my ear, is a loving thing to say. It also validates the other person’s feelings and in this creates connection. Once the love is proved and the connection is established in this way then an environment of trust is established that will facilitate whatever further conversation needs to happen in order to repair the relationship. There will be time and space for that later. The first effort must always be to create a safe environment, and reflective listening is a great way to do this. Imagine that the above conversation continued on, with B reflecting A while s/he further shared whatever thoughts and feelings were there. The love would just continue to build.

Once at the monastery I did something — it doesn’t matter what it was — that tremendously upset my family. Over the course of two weeks I had a number of conversations with them, during which they expressed their disapproval quite emphatically. For two whole weeks I did nothing but reflect. This made them angry at first: they wanted to engage with me in such a way that their anger would land; they also wanted the angry response that they were used to from me, but I wouldn’t give it to them. Eventually my unwillingness to descend into conditioning completely diffused the situation, and once it did we were able to speak as adults to each other and resolve the issue. Reflective listening gave me ground to stand on while I navigated my way through. The power in that simple technique simply astounded me.

I would recommend that you practice reflective listening everywhere you go. Next time you go through the line at the grocery store, reflect the clerk. You’ll be surprised how deep reflective listening can take you in just two minutes. Reflect your friends and family every chance you get. You’ll likely find that people love it. We all crave to be listened to and understood, and the thing about reflective listening is that it requires you to really listen — not to the voices in your own head, not to all the things you are going to say in response, but to the other person. You may become very popular. If you run into someone who hates being reflected, just know that conditioned mind is involved. Conditioning hates reflective listening because of it’s power to end suffering and clean up relationships between people. Practice, practice, practice, and then when you need it the tool will be there for you. Good luck!

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