Reflective Listening – by Kind Communication

KindCommunication.orgRe-posted From:

Almost every time I introduce reflective listening to couples, they groan.  “Why do I need to repeat back to my partner what they just said??  It’s so, patronizing/cumbersome/annoying.”  And yet, at least 50% of the time when I get them to try it out, that same partner cannot actually repeat back what the other person said.  They didn’t hear their partner because they were too busy either thinking of their response, in other words getting into reactive mode instead of listening.  And it takes all the self-control I have to not say “see!! That’s why you need to engage in reflective listening.”

Reflective listening is a tool where we repeat back a summary of what we heard our partner say.  We don’t regurgitate what they said word for word (that’s called parroting, and it’s annoying), but rather we reflect back our summary, our synthesis, of their key thoughts, feelings, and needs.  So for example, if my wife came home and told me in detail, for 10 minutes, about all the annoying, frustrating, and obnoxious interruptions and obstacles to getting work done today, I might reflect back something like:

“Wow, it sounds like you had a really frustrating day.  I’m sorry that every time you tried to get your work done someone came in and interrupted you.  I imagine it was so frustrating because you really wanted to accomplish a bunch of things today so tomorrow you wouldn’t be so behind?”

So you see, reflective listening does not need to be long, patronizing, or complex.  It is not a test to see if you heard 100% of your partner’s words.  What this tool does is it shows your partner that you care.  It lets your partner know what you heard (so they can compare that to what they thought they said).  And during a fight, it is a tool that helps us slow down the action, and lower the energy in the room, so that we can have a healthy conversation about conflict.

Reflective listening is one of the key tools to compassionate communication.  It is also one of the most powerful communication tools I know.  When we’re able to accurately reflect back the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and needs they can have this experience of feeling heard, understood, and cared for.  It can be medicine for our souls.  The number one thing I see escalating conflict into a fight is one or both partners not feeling heard, understood, or cared for.  When one or both partners think they aren’t being heard or understood, trust quickly evaporates.  And without trust, we instinctually become defensive, we want to protect ourselves.  And it is these defensive behaviors which escalate conflict.

So yes, I know reflective listening can be awkward at first.  Yes, I know that no one (or very few people) in your life has modeled this kind of listening and communication.  And yes, I know that at first when you engage in reflective listening you’ll probably make mistakes and it won’t “work right” (just like the first time you use any tool, it takes practice).  But seriously, if every one of my readers learned, practiced, and used this skill in their daily life and especially during conflict, I would be out of a job because all your conflicts would be much healthier, easier, and more peaceful. is a project by a close friend of Wiki World Order, Alex Leach. WWO fully supports the study, practice, and teaching of non-violent communication as one of the core solutions which already exists.