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The Power of Conscious Listening, Part III - Reflective Listening

(Originally published August 9, 2019)

I have to make a confession. I love the X-Men. For those of you who don't read science-fiction (or watch science-fiction movies) the X-Men are a band of heroes with special abilities, often called mutant powers. (Yes, this is full-out nerd happening here - you're really getting two confessions for the price of one.)

The X-Men's powers are showy, flashy, perfect stuff for Hollywood. They're also genetic, so either you have them or you don't. But I'll contend there are a class of mutant powers that anyone (not just X-Men) can develop. One of the most powerful, and most useful, is to make ourselves into high-power, conscious listeners.

In my last post I talked some more about being "in the room" as a listener - i.e., being more aware of what kind of listening was best suited to the moment, rather than reacting as a listener out of habit. I also promised a technique that is one of the best ways I know to BE present as a listener. It takes a little practice and energy, but it can deliver enormous payoffs.

OK, let's talk superpowers, or more specifically, reflective listening, sometimes called active listening. It is as simple as this: when someone is talking to you the mission is to reflect (summarize/paraphrase) what you've heard, to the satisfaction of the speaker. That's it.

Note two details here: 1) summarize/paraphrase (NOT parrot word-for-word), and 2) to the speaker's satisfaction. The action of summarizing makes us both get to the gist of what's being said and tells the speaker what you really heard (as opposed to what they are assuming you have heard). So you have to ask the speaker something along the lines of "yes? Did I get it?"

I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that almost nobody does this on a regular basis. There are reasons, of course. One is that it, at the start, feels weirdly deliberate and even artificial.

That makes sense, because it is those things. This isn't the kind of listening we're going to do 80% of the time. Another reason we don't use this more is because, for many of us, the need to summarize what we've heard can make us think that we're coming off to the speaker as slow or stupid. Didn't we get it the first time?

Well, permit me to ask - DO you always get it right the first time? How much grief, just in your own experience, have you suffered from (either by you or from someone else not listening well) as a result of someone saying "yes sir or ma'am, you got it, no problem" and then clearly NOT getting it right?

Simple to execute, but incredibly useful and powerful. For example, let's say you've just heard your boss give you instructions and some of it wasn't clear or doesn't make sense. I KNOW you're tempted (I am too) to say "OK, I'm on it" and leave the room, puzzling out what the hell he or she was talking about.

You could, instead, take all of 10 seconds and reflect back what you've heard, in summary fashion. They may or may not be a little weirded out that you did this the first two or three times, but guess what? YOU DON'T HAVE TO ASK AGAIN. You also have the opportunity to execute on this the right way the first time. Call me crazy, but that's two outcomes that look pretty good to most bosses...

This has multiple applications. One is in moments of tense, defensive communication, or even outright conflict. The single biggest reason conflicts either bog down and fester or, worse, leave a trail of bodies behind them is that one or both parties don't feel heard. Isn't that interesting? I have a simple, mutant-power solution - LISTEN. Effectively. Reflectively.

Another place this is extremely helpful is when you don't think the person you're talking to is getting what you're saying. Yes, it's legal to ask someone else to reflect back to you. Could there be a better way to know, for sure, that you've been heard clearly?

For those of you that like clean, simple lists, here's one for you - when to use reflective listening:

  • When what you're hearing is new, dense or complex

  • When you don't feel sure, for any reason, that you're heard things clearly

  • When you are in the midst, or approaching, defensive communication or conflict

  • When YOU are grumpy, tired or out of sorts

  • When you're getting the sense that the other person isn't getting it (asking them to reflect)

  • (In the case of asking someone else to reflect back to you make it easy/painless for them - say something like "hey, I'm not sure I'm communicating well here - can you tell me what you're hearing?" Making it about you can make it easier for someone else to do this for you.)

I'm not asking you to take my word for any of this. Take a small chance and reflect back what you've heard, next time you're in one of the situations I've described above. It can also be useful to practice this with someone - a colleague, partner or spouse. It can't hurt, but it can be very, very helpful.

Food for Thought:

Who is a likely person who would practice reflective listening with you?

Who is someone in your world that would really benefit from this skill?

Who is someone you could reflect back for that probably needs that from you?


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