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Active Listening

by Jake Colton

Active Listening

  • Simple Reflections – Mirroring
  • Complex Reflections – The Iceberg
  • Double Sided Reflection – Resolving Ambivalence
  • Listening vs Agreeing
  • Reflecting emotion vs Reflecting content
  • Emotional vs Cognitive Empathy

Active listening is often talked about, but still widely misunderstood. Some people believe that if they are hearing and thinking about the other person’s words they are active listening. Incorrect. Others assume, if they are taking notes then they are “active listening.” Wrong. Some think that if they are nodding while saying things such as “Mmhm, ..yes, …I understand …I see your point of view..” then they are active listening. Nope.

These represent variations of listening and processing information. However, active listening is a very specific skill. It takes a little work to obtain it and it takes a little work to recognize the moments when it’s needed. But it’s worth the effort. People who are good at active listening tend to be liked more, avoid conflict from miscommunication, and rate their relationships as being more satisfying.

Keep in mind these are techniques to keep communication open and deepen the relationship, however they’re not always efficient and if applied to the wrong communication situation they would add unnecessary weight and seriousness. Part of the challenge is to understand the timing of the techniques. Like a golfer selecting the right club for a shot.

Simple reflections are enough for simple communication. When things get tougher step up your game by using some complex reflections.

Simple Reflections – “Mirroring”

Simple reflections mirror and acknowledge the speaker’s emotion, opinion, or perception by repeating what the speaker has said.

  • For example, if speaker A says, “You make me SO angry when you says you’re going to be home at ten and then you stay out until one without calling me. ..At least text me!”

Speaker B using a simple reflection would essentially repeat speaker A’s comments without adding or taking away from the essential meaning of speaker A’s statement. In it’s purest form Speaker B would use the same words that speaker A used. No rephrasing, rewording, interpreting, or guessing.

  • Speaker B – “I make you very angry when I say I’m going to be home at ten and stay out until one without calling you. At the very least I could text you.”

Another example with slight rewording:

  • Speaker B – “It makes you very angry when I say I’m going to be home at a certain time and I’m not. You figure the least I could do is text to let you know when I’ve changed my plans.”

These simple reflections require little processing on speaker B’s part. They simply demonstrate that Speaker A’s words were heard. Whether the words were fully understood, accepted, agreed with, etc is irrelevant at this point in the communication process.

It’s important to understand that listening is NOT the same as agreeing with what the person is saying. Listening opens up the conversation and allows both people to be heard. Most couples never get beyond this stage in the process because they become defensive, angry, and clamp down on their own perspective.

Complex Reflections

Complex reflections go beyond simple reflections by adding substantial meaning or emphasis to what the speaker has said. They are used to validate the speaker’s experience and offer an alternative perspective.

  • For example, if speaker A says, “Every weekend we stay in. ..And I have a blast hanging out with you. ..I don’t know. ..I know my friends are kinda childish, but they’re my friends. I’ve known them since I was a kid.”

For the listener to make effective complex reflections it’s helpful to reflect on what’s behind the speakers words (the hidden part of the iceberg). For example, what is the speaker really feeling and thinking? What is the speaker trying to accomplish? What are the speakers motives? (e.g. emotional and cognitive empathy).

  • Speaker B could respond, “You like staying in and hanging out with me and you also like spending time with your friends. You’re frustrated because you haven’t hung out with them for a while. You’re also a little anxious because you know I don’t like them and you’re concerned I might feel bad if you go out with them instead of staying home with me.”

Of course, complex reflections only work to the extent that the listener makes a sincere attempt at accuracy. If the listener were to say, “Whatever. You always think about yourself and do what you want to do anyway, so go hang out with them” the communication wouldn’t get very far. …Unless, perhaps the other person countered with a complex reflection to try and open things back up.

  • For example, “You were looking forward to hanging out tonight and you’re a little sad. It reminds you of when I used to hang out with them all the time and we were barely spending any time together. I wasn’t very considerate of your feelings and you don’t want it to go back there.”

Double Sided Reflection

Double sided reflections are a particular type of complex reflection used when ambivalence is present.

We all get stuck sometimes. Mixed feelings and mixed thoughts are a way of life. Some choose to ignore them and some people drown in them. When you recognize “the mix” you can help the person sort it out by reflecting both sides of the ambivalence.

  • For example the speaker could say, “I never have time to workout! ..It makes me so angry. I felt so good when I was going every day before work. ..I’m so busy with new clients. I love working with them and I need the money.”
  • And the listener could respond, “You’re angry because on the one hand you love working with your clients. Also, you need the money. On the other hand you also like working out. It makes you feel good to start your day that way.”

Obviously the speaker still has the problem. Sometimes problems can’t be solved right away. Recognizing this as a listener is essential to being a good listener since it will help the listener avoid feelings of anxiety and frustration which are common responses when listening to someone who is stuck in ambivalence land.

Often it’s tempting for the listener to fix and solve the problems of the listener. Sometimes the speaker just wants to vent and sometimes the speaker wants advice and sometimes they need something in between. Ambivalence land. ..ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. ..This is a good time to use double sided reflections because they allow enough space for the speaker to vent and explore their own thoughts/feelings while getting some help from the listener to organize the thoughts and get some direction/momentum towards resolution.

To learn more about active listening or practice the skill so that it can improve your communication and deepen your relationships, contact Jake Colton LCSW CADC to schedule an office or online (e.g. FaceTime) appointment.


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