The Art of Reflective Listening

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I listen to a lot of marital arguments. Sometimes the arguments get so heated that I feel more like a referee than a therapist! Other times, the partners are so frustrated with each other that they don’t speak directly to one another at all, preferring to communicate through me.

People Want to Be Understood

Whether partners are actively arguing or avoiding communication all together, one thing is clear: they are usually desperate to be understood. They seem compelled to “make their case”; like attorneys do when defending or prosecuting a person being tried for a crime! In the first case, the partners blast one another with stronger and stronger arguments, getting louder and more hostile with each point they make. In the second case, each partner presents me, the Quasi-Judge, with the evidence that supports his or her individual point of view on any given dispute.

Needless to say, these types of exchanges are emotionally exhausting for all parties involved – myself included! The tension between couples can get so intense that de-escalation becomes my first order of business. Fortunately, I have a technique that seems to cause most married partners to settle down rather quickly. Quite simply, I validate their feelings and their individual points of view. This is the essence of Reflective Listening

The majority of marriage therapists would probably agree that one of the most common reasons married couples seek counseling is because of poor communication. And as ‘listening’ is perhaps the most important component of interpersonal communication, it is vital that married partners master the art of reflective listening.

How To Listen The Right Way

Reflective listening calls for us to listen for feelings first, content second. We make sure we are on the right track in identifying the feelings’ of our partner by literally reflecting (i.e., echoing) the feelings we hear. In the midst of an angry exchange, what most married partners are essentially seeking from one another is genuine understanding and validation of their feelings.  But it is virtually impossible to meet each other’s need to be understood and validated if we are not reflectively listening to one another.

Let me give you an example of proper reflective listening: If a wife is angry at her husband for ignoring her at a party and afterwards says: “You were a real jerk to me at the party”, her husband is likely to get very defensive and justify his behavior.

However, if he was practicing the art of reflective listening, he might say something like “I can see how angry you are…you sound hurt.” His wife would probably verify her hurt feelings saying something like, “Yes, I’m hurt. It was like you didn’t even realize I was there.” Her husband might then say, “I’m sorry I made you feel unimportant. You don’t deserve to be treated that way. I really will try not to ever do that again.”

While her feelings might still be hurt, the wife would probably not continue to attack her husband at this point. She has gotten what she wanted: understanding and validation. And happily, the argument would probably not escalate any further than it originally had.

Married partners, accustomed to arguing content rather than reflecting feelings, would do well to practice reflective listening in most of their interpersonal communications. For instance, if a co-worker says, “My daughter is driving me crazy,” a typical non-reflective response might be to commiserate by talking about one your own child’s annoying traits. But that is not reflective listening.

When your co-worker makes her remark, practice reflective listening by saying something like, “You sound really frustrated.” If you can practice this technique in interactions that are not emotionally charged, you will be more likely to fall back on it when it really counts.

Reflective listening needs to become second nature to married partners who traditionally find themselves arguing about anything and everything. It will always be easy for partners to default to defensive and accusatory interactions under emotional stress unless they practice this technique as much and as often as possible.

If it so happens that your marital problems go beyond poor communication, the tool of reflective listening could prove to be one of your most valuable assets when addressing, and resolving, even the most complicated and difficult of marital challenges.

One Comment

  1. Jane-Reply
    June 14, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you for writing this post. I don’t ever feel my husband listens to me and it’s possible I am not a very good listener either. I will practice reflective listening. Thanks Barbara.

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