How To Practice Reflective Listening (With Tips and Examples)

Updated February 3, 2023

Reflective listening can improve communication by increasing the listener's understanding of what the other person has to say. Regardless of your professional context, practicing reflective listening can have a significant impact on your ability to understand other people's messages and ideas. Reflective listening is therefore a valuable skill, but it requires practice. In this article, we discuss what reflective listening is, why it's important, what the steps are for achieving it and also provide concrete examples.

What is reflective listening?

Reflective listening is a communication technique in which the listener tries to understand the speaker's idea and then communicates it back to them to confirm it was understood correctly. As opposed to most conversation techniques, which typically require the listener to provide a response to the speaker's message, reflective listening requires the speaker to be able to reflect the speaker's ideas and feelings as accurately as possible.

The main elements of reflective listening are:

  • Focusing on what the other person has to say and trying to understand what they are trying to communicate through words, tone of voice and non-verbal cues

  • Responding to their message by reproducing their own thoughts and feelings, as they expressed them through their voice, tone, posture and gestures

There are two main techniques used for reflective listening. They are:

  • Paraphrasing: it involves listening to the speaker and using your own words to reflect what they said. This is usually an effective way for both you and the listener to see if you properly understood the message.

  • Mirroring: It is a shorter and simpler technique of reflective listening and it implies repeating the key parts of the message, word for word. This helps you stay focused on the rest of the message and it shows the speaker that you are paying attention.

Related: How to Be a Good Listener

Why is reflective listening important?

The main reasons why reflective listening is important are:

  • It helps the listener understand the message. Some people find it difficult to stay silent and focus while someone else is speaking. Their mind tends to switch to other thoughts and this can make communication ineffective. Reflective listening helps the listener stay focused by forcing them to be alert throughout the conversation. Also, their understanding of the message is constantly tested as the listener repeats the speaker's ideas.

  • It helps the speaker deliver a clear message. Having their thoughts and ideas constantly repeated back at them can help the speaker deliver a clearer and more concise message by forcing them to think and communicate to the best of their abilities.

  • It reinforces positive relationships. The speaker constantly receives confirmation that the listener is willing to focus and do their best to understand what the discussion's overall message is.

  • It helps the speaker check the accuracy of their own words and ideas. By having the ideas repeated back at them, they ensure they communicated the message the way they hoped.

  • It reduces the odds of two people mistakenly believing they have an understanding. This is relevant in situations when the listener did not properly understand the message.

Related: Building Communication Skills: 9 Types of Listening

Steps for reflective listening

The four main steps involved in reflective listening are:

  1. Listen to the speaker's message. The first step is to make a conscious effort to focus your mind solely on listening to what the other person has to say. Although most conversations start with that intention, the mind tends to lose focus and move its attention to other issues. You can avoid this by constantly making an effort to focus on the speaker.

  2. Analyze the meaning of the speaker's message. After listening to a thought or an idea, the next step should be to determine what the speaker meant to transmit to you through those words. It is important that you make an effort not to let your own opinions on the matter influence your analysis, as the purpose is not to combat the speaker's ideas, but rather to make sure that you properly understand them.

  3. Reflect the message back to the speaker. After coming to a conclusion regarding the meaning of the speaker's words, you should confirm that your interpretation of the message is the same as what the speaker intended to transmit. You can do this either by repeating parts of their message word for word or by paraphrasing it.

  4. Confirm that you properly understood the message. The speaker is likely to have a response to your reflection. The response is usually either a confirmation that you properly understood what they are trying to say or a correction in which they explain their point further and try to help you get a clear understanding of what they meant to say.

Related: How to Improve Communication Skills

Tips for reflective listening

Consider these tips to improve your reflective listening skills:

  • Avoid making judgments. Although you may be instinctively tempted to make judgments and counter the speaker's opinions, it's best that you instead focus on understanding the message.

  • Focus on both verbal and non-verbal cues. When reflecting the speaker's message back at them, you should also try to reproduce elements like body language and tone of voice, as they are likely to be an integral part of the message.

  • Understand the speaker's feelings. Rather than simply repeating the facts and ideas that the speaker expresses, practicing reflective listening should be an attempt to understand the speaker's feelings about the matters they communicate about.

  • Don't offer advice. Reflective listening is not about providing advice. Instead, you should use acknowledgment and encouragement to help the speaker find solutions on their own.

Related: Guide to the 7 C's of Communication

Examples of reflective listening

Here are some example situations using reflective listening:

Example 1

Speaker: “I'm not sure why I didn't do well on the exam. I constantly studied throughout the year and did all my homework, but when the exam came I found most of the questions had little to do with what the teacher told us to learn throughout the semester.”

Listener: “You feel like the exam did not reflect your curriculum for this semester.”

Example 2

Speaker: “I was typically assigned corporate clients in the past, but so far this year they have all gone to Kathy. I am not sure what changed and I don't know if confronting my boss about it is a good idea or not”

Listener: “You're not sure why you're not getting big accounts and don't know if you should mention it to your boss”

Example 3

Speaker: “Our long-term strategy should include ways to turn one-time customers into regular customers. Our business model absolutely requires repeat business, but so far we're not doing anything to make that happen”

Listener: “You're concerned that you and your company are not doing enough to gain customer loyalty, although you absolutely need it.”

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