Survive Any Conversation With One Simple Skill
Don’t know what to say next? Just reflect.
Many of us feel pressure to be interesting, funny, intelligent in conversation. You feel like you must have shared knowledge or interests to carry on a conversation or that you need to know the right thing to say at the right time. Small talk is avoided at all costs. Maybe you even get excited to say something and then find yourself paralyzed. These are conversation concerns that a lot of folks face — it’s not an issue just for those on the spectrum or with social anxiety.
There is one thing you can do to survive and thrive in any conversation. It’s a simple skill called reflecting. A reflection is like a paraphrase or mirroring of what you just heard. Reflective listening involves continually repeating what you heard to show understanding. Reflections are a powerful conversational skill because people like to feel listened to and understood without you telling them what to do.
A bonus: when you start reflecting the pressure is off of you to direct the conversation. You do not need to know anything about the person you are talking to. You do not need to share anything about yourself and you do not need to be coming up with new ideas for conversation topics.
How do I get started?
Start by simply repeating back a statement about what a person is saying. For example, when someone says:
I’m really worried about my test next week
You can say any one of the following reflections:
Sounds like you are very worried about your test next week.
You are really worried about your test.
To survive in a conversation, all you have to do is reflect.
Over and over and over again. Start with the simplest of reflections which is to say, “Sounds like…” and then repeat what you heard them say.
When I train people to do reflections, I challenge them to go to their families, friends, or a cocktail party (when that was a thing), and see how long they can go by just reflecting; no questions allowed. Avoid advice or saying something about yourself unless directly asked. If that feels like too much, you could also start practicing reflections when texting with someone or create reflections online.
The first time doing a reflection challenge IRL may feel strange and robotic. You will worry that people will notice you are repeating them. Often this doesn’t actually happen. If it does occur, people will still feel so understood that they might not mind. Worst case: you can say, “I’m practicing something to see how long I can go before asking a question.”
Leveling up your reflections.
Once you become comfortable with starting your reflection with “Sounds like..” More advanced listeners use the start: “So you…” or “You…” and guess about what the speaker meant rather than just repeating what they heard.
More complex reflections of the statement “I’m really worried about my test next week” could include:
You might need some more support.
So this is a tough week then.
Seems like you’re spinning out right now.
Reflections are kind of like hypotheses.
Another way to think of reflection is like a type of question in the form of a statement. You are throwing out an idea that you think you have about another person and what they are saying. “Sounds like you are very worried about your test,” would be a safe simple hypothesis about the other person that shows you are listening. “Sounds like you need support right now,” is a more complex hypothesis that goes beyond what is said to what is meant. The speaker may feel very understood or may correct you and continue the conversation about what they do actually need. “Seems like you feel wildly underprepared for your test!” would also be a hypothesis that goes far beyond what was said, to the point where it’s probably incorrect. But at least you attempted to understand, which may get you points. (In fact, I sometimes relish the opportunity to repair a bad reflection with, “Oh I misunderstood. I’m sorry. Tell me how you feel about it.” )
I could talk more about sub-types of reflections all day (I actually do that sometimes). But categorizing statements won’t make it easier to talk to others. The point here is you don’t actually need to know a lot to stay afloat in a conversation. Once you’ve mastered this one skill you should be good for a while; maybe toss in an open-question (i.e., one that can’t be answered with yes or no) if you get really stuck when you start.
How do we know this works?
Now to the science. If you truly master reflections you’ll become like a therapist. Because yes, this is what we do all day. When good counselors engage in empathic listening they will talk far less than their patients and when they do, they will reflect. Some try to spend about two-thirds of the time they talk making reflections, and the remainder of the time crafting open questions or observing their patient’s strengths. Therapy is not the same as a conversation, but if you’ve ever seen a good therapist you might arrive at a session with “nothing to talk about” and suddenly spend your full 50 minutes talking freely. You might even leave feeling lighter and more understood. This is in part due to the power of reflections.
For almost 15 years, I’ve been a trainer in a type of psychotherapy called motivational interviewing. This philosophy teaches therapists how to evoke change through targeted listening skills. There are evidence-based methods like motivational interviewing that therapists learn but many of the active ingredients of therapy remain surprisingly debatable. We do know some things work to help people, like demonstrating empathy. And you guessed it, one of the verbal skills most related to demonstrating empathy is forming reflections.
Reflections may be related to empathy because they create a type of synchrony between the speaker and the listener. This naturalistically happens when people are engaged in good conversation with each other. People match their vocal tone, rate of speech, and the way they speak unconsciously in therapy. We also see this synchrony in normal conversations in unconscious ways.
In the end, the real judge of how reflecting works in conversation will be you. Feel free to let me know how you did with the challenge of using only reflections in conversation. If you want to practice first, check out my listening games here, made in collaboration with Nic Bertagnolli.
Sounds like you are going to feel a little more comfortable in your next conversation.
x Dr. Lord