Reflective listening

Reflective listening is a tool used to promote connection between people. It’s presupposition is that two people in relationship would so value the connection they have with each other that they would actively seek to strengthen it. The corollary of this is that these same two people would actively seek to eliminate anything in how they relate that would violate this connection. From an outsiders perspective the first criticism leveled at this tool is that it negates getting to the right and wrong of a disagreement. This is a shallow critique as it misses a vital element of relationship – the relationship is meant to be the winner here. As soon as this degenerates into a ‘win at all costs’ contest you end up with a winner and loser situation – one person in the relationship is considered the winner, the other the loser. Now, who would want to be married to a loser? My answer: only someone with an incredibly low self-esteem would need to dominate someone else in this way so as to feel better about themselves.

Immature relationship is satisfied with win-lose because it feeds the small-mindedness of our ego. The ego sees only from the perspective of self, and so mistakenly believes it knows everything about the situation, issue or conflict. It pushes the ‘my way is best’ agenda. Essentially, what is often happening is really just self-protection, instead of self-disclosure. This is understandable, but not useful to strengthen a relational connection. Mature relationship will preserve connection for the benefit of both people. Mature relationship realises that our selfish desire to preserve our ego will do great harm to our relationships.

Marriage is about partnership – I would argue a partnership of equals. This equal partnership brings with it great potential, but it requires an equally great humility that embraces relinquishing the need to always be right. This is what compromise is. This is not, in the words of Monica Gellar, “just a fancy word for lose!”. Rather, it promotes a winning culture in the relationship, where the two people can stand alongside each other and face the issue, rather than stand facing each other and break each other down with argument. It aims to provide for a win-win situation.

So if we’re not arguing right and wrong, then what is being discussed in relationship? What is on the table are our feelings and our needs. Focusing on feelings and needs will move a couple out of argument territory, and into solution territory. Feelings cannot be argued with, they just are. (Perhaps it is important here to pair the ‘cannot’ with a ‘should not’). Compromise sprouts from the fertile land of acknowledged feelings. Any attempt to discount feelings and needs is just a form of repression. And repressed feelings don’t die. They get buried alive and tend to claw their way back out when least expected.

Successful reflective listening does not mean that each side has to agree with what is said, but they must seek to understand what is being said and felt. Success in reflective listening often, although not always, produces a much ‘softer’ dialogue between the participants as recognition of hurt feelings and unmet needs surface. This recognition can grant great impetus to move a conflict towards resolution.

This change in attitude to standing side by side to face the issue, instead of throwing mud at each other, effectively pools resources. Now there are two brains, each getting to deal with their emotions healthily, that can focus on solving whatever the issue may be.

There are three steps to this process. They work sequentially, but also work in a cycle. This is best represented in point form – we will name the participants person A and person B for the purpose of clarity.

First step:

  • One person speaks first – person A.
    • The responsibility of person A is to communicate as best as they can their needs and feelings.
  • Person B has the responsibility to listen intentionally to Person A
    • They seek to hear, without judgement, the needs and feelings being communicated to them.
    • They may not interrupt Person A

Second step:

  • It is Person B’s turn to speak
    • They are only allowed to communicate back to person A what they heard them saying.
    • They use the language, “What I hear you saying is…”

Third step:

  • Once person B has finished reflecting back to person A, then person A is allowed to confirm whether they feel heard or not.
    • If they do feel heard then person B is offered the opportunity to begin the cycle from step 1.
    • If not, then person A starts the cycle from step 1 again.

Follow this link to continue to the next blog in this series: Part 3.2 – Negotiating change / Communicating needs