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Reflective Listening

Reflective listening in its purest form means that you verbally repeat what you hear somebody else is saying. It is listening to others from a position of empathy.

So what is empathy? It is the shift from me to we. It is the ability to understand others on both a feeling and thinking level…to recognize emotions in others…to make the basic shift from “the world revolves around me” to being caring and motivated to help others.


It is an essential part of emotional intelligence. The part where you grow out of the ego-centered part of being a child.

Empathy can be tricky. People who demonstrate a lot of empathy are very good at tapping into their own life experience in order to relate to what someone else is experiencing. But they use it only as a starting point and not as the end itself.

If you are empathetic, you use your own experience as a guide, but always “check out” whether your interpretation of another person’s feelings or thoughts is accurate.

You always maintain the thought that another person might feel differently or think differently than you do in any given situation.  This is why reflective listening is so powerful. It helps you to listen to others from that point of view.

Reflective listening can be trained, like any other emotional muscle. The very act of repeating what the other person are saying will immediately cause you to stop before you act on your automatic interpretations.  The following activity will train that reflective listening muscle.

Reflective Listening Exercise

Ask participants to Pair up.

  • Select an issue on which you have differing opinions…either a work related issue or a social issue. It is important that you choose an issue about which you have differing opinions, because that’s when it’s the hardest to listen to each other.
  • (We usually invest in being right or in winning and don’t come from a place of wanting to understand)
  • Begin your conversation with one person sharing their perspective on the issue. The spotlight stays on that person until they indicate that their partner clearly understands their perspective.
  • If I, person A, am the first to share my perspective, person B takes as much time as necessary to feed back to me their interpretation of what I am saying.
  • Person A does one of two things. They either VALIDATE and say “Yes, I think you have an accurate understanding” or they “CORRECT” the interpretation by saying “that’s not exactly it. Here’s what I mean.”
  • Once person A has VALIDATE that person B is understanding, person B then has the opportunity to share their point of view and allow person A to check out their interpretations.
  • Caveat: When you are communicating your point of view, share a few ideas and then let your listener clarify. Then continue sharing more ideas.

If you speak for 5 minutes straight before your listener has a chance to check out what they’re making up, they won’t be able to remember everything you said.

Debrief After The Activity

  • Did you feel that you and your partner understood each other better or that you made some headway in solving the problem?
  • What was it like to focus so intently on understanding the meaning of someone else’s communication rather than on what you were going to say?
  • What did you personally have to let go of to listen effectively and “check out your thinking maps?”

Reflective Exercise

Now that you were introduced to reflective listening, try to do it in real-life situations.  Consider a person at work who you have a differing opinion to.

  • Step into someone else’s shoes. All of us have people with whom we have difficulty emphasizing or situations in which we lack empathy.
  • Choose a person or a situation and literally “step into those shoes” for a period of time. Spend time imagining you are doing someone else’s job. Note whether your ability to emphasize changes based on seeing the world from a different perspective.
  • Choose a real life “hot spot” to practice this ‘other world perspective’ it. Select a person with whom you are having relationship difficulties. Or you can choose a person that you know holds significantly different beliefs from your own.
  • Think about the conversations that you have had with that person consciously check your own interpretations of what they are saying.
  • Begin by focusing on them. Before moving forward, think about what would happen if you framed the conversation from the perspective of “I just want to make sure I understand you. Can I clarify?” People rarely say no to this.
  • When you imagine you are speaking, ask the person if they wouldn’t mind sharing what they’re hearing you say. You can then consider how you would take the opportunity to correct them if you feel misunderstood.

Use this tool whenever you have to deal with conflict between people. Remember, this is a habit, and just like any other muscle, you need to train it.