Reflective Listening Makes or Breaks Communication

People don't always need advice. Sometimes all they really need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen and a heart to understand them.
Two women displaying reflective listening skills

Reflective listening refers to the final point made in the last article, and it deserves a separate chapter because it concerns how the listener deals with what they have heard. This is what makes or breaks the art of communication.

Let’s recap - the four components of active listening – acceptance, empathy, honesty, and specifics – all work towards creating reflective responses in the listener.

The main principles of reflective listening are:

  • Listen more than you talk.

  • Deal with personal specifics, not impersonal generalities.

  • Decipher the feelings behind the words to create a better understanding of the issues.

  • Restate and clarify what you have heard.

  • Understand the speaker's frame of reference and avoid responding from your frame of reference. (Frame of reference means the views a person has on an issue based on their own subjective experience of it.)

  • Respond with acceptance and empathy, not coldly or with fake concern.

Dealing with personal specifics means that the listener chooses to explore the effects on the speaker. If someone is worried that they may be about to lose their job, the focus should be first on that person's fears, not on the job market's current state. The speaker will undoubtedly have already researched the facts and figures and probabilities and will have heard a hundred times from well-meaning individuals that their job may not be lost. What is required in this case, and what reflective listening provides, is the chance to let the concerned person express their fears to another human being. This is often the primary reason for talking.

When the listener responds on a personal level, the conversation remains at the level the speaker intended. This allows them to further explore their feelings, improve their understanding of the situation, and perhaps attain a healthier attitude. There is no point in the listener saying: "Don't worry, I'm sure it won't happen."

This is an empty platitude that reveals the listener has not even slightly grasped why the speaker opened up. Telling a worried person not to worry is tantamount to ending the conversation there and then. It is dismissive of the real problem, which is the speaker's emotional reaction to the situation. This is particularly damaging when it has been such a huge step to reveal those emotions in the first place.

Reflective listening is concerned with responding, which underpins all effective communication. It is not about leading the speaker in a direction chosen by the listener because the listener believes this to be the best course of action based on their frame of reference. The responsive listener addresses those matters that the speaker is currently discussing.

However, the reflective listener must evaluate the words spoken and all that the speaker is conveying through their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. All this will provide the best interpretation of the speaker's actual emotional state. When a person feels that they are understood at an emotional level, that's the moment when they think they are truly understood.

Always remember that the emotion you read in a person's expression may be entirely at odds with the content of their spoken message. Content refers to the ideas, reasons, theories, assumptions, and descriptions expressed verbally by the speaker. Since many people do not state their emotions explicitly within such content, the listener will need to respond to the implicit emotional tone. A simple example would be if you asked how a friend was doing, and they replied in a monotone and with pain in their eyes: "I'm doing great." Which message would you take as real?

The reflective listener would respond to the evident sadness and distress in their friend. This is a crucial skill to master: the ability and willingness to confront negative emotions and constructively deal with them. This may involve the listener in a long conversation, where a simple "Don't worry!" would not. However, unless those underlying negative emotions are dealt with, then although the initial listening may have been actively performed, it can still be ruined by a lack of reflection.

This does not mean that assumptions should be made; this is responding from your frame of reference. You know that the last time you looked so miserable, something terrible had happened, so you assume that must be the case now. The friend in question may indeed be doing great; they may just have gone over on their ankle and be in a little pain at that precise moment. The only way to establish the truth would be to respond with a gentle challenge: "Are you sure you're feeling all right? You look like you're suffering."

Pitfalls to Avoid

Repetition in responses – Constantly using the same response can give the impression you are on autopilot. You should also avoid your reactions being statements, such as, "You’re saying …” or “You feel …” It is better to respond with questions. Pretending to understand is quite possible when listening to an emotional person to get a little lost. Emotions can muddle our thoughts and words. If you get lost, speak up and ask for clarification, or you may spend a great deal of time operating in ignorance or on a misconception.

Trying too hard – As much as you may want to help and feel that you have understood every nuance of the issue, resist the temptation to offer explanations that go beyond your knowledge base or beyond the facts that are known. Amateur psychologists are a dime a dozen.

Not trying hard enough – Make sure to gauge the speaker’s emotions as best you can. Missing key emotions or devaluing them may cause the speaker to clam up in frustration.

Rambling on – Keep your responses short. Remember, you should be listening more than talking. Don’t mistake long-windedness for helpfulness.

Missing non-verbal messages – This is a huge mistake, for reasons already stated.


Anyone interested in improving their communication skills should understand how active listening differs from the listening they usually practice.

Remember that there are two types of listening: active listening and not listening. Active listening is not some super-listening skill beyond the reach of mere mortals; it is a skill anyone can master if they are willing to accept their current inadequacies and make an effort required.

Active listening is also not just a skill that belongs in a business or other professional environment; it is useful for anyone who seeks to improve their communication with other people. Only when you begin to listen actively will you realize just how much you were missing previously.

This is the last post in a four-part series. I hope you found this series helpful.


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