Before I start the second part of the listening series, I’d like to apologise for the time between posts. Since my last post I have moved house, studied an amazing course that has required some continuing education and started a couple of other projects so life has gotten a little crazy. I’m going to try to ensure that my blog posts are a bit more regular going forward from here.
In the previous blog post I wrote about the importance of active listening. This blog will discuss another critical component of listening – reflective listening – which is an extension of active listening and takes the listening process one step further. It is important to understand here, that in order to move on to and become a good reflective listener that you first must master the process of active listening because reflective listening requires active listening. There is simply no possible way that you can reflect with a client if you were not active to begin with.
In reflective listening we are paying close attention to the content, feelings and message behind what we are being told. In active listening, as you may recall, we are using verbal and non-verbal cues to signal to our client, friend or colleague that we are indeed paying close attention to what they are saying. This process alone, even without reflecting, can be enough to trigger our client in to delving deeper into the topic of our conversation, and in the case of an Exercise Physiologist, this topic is invariably about changing some type of deleterious behaviour. So reflective listening is a skill that does take a lot of practice to develop and is not as simple as active listening.
When we reflect on a conversation we are aiming to display a deep level of understanding to our client and the issues, feelings and emotions that they are expressing. By acting as a mirror to our client we are able to help our clients to realize more about what they are saying and understand some of the deeper meanings behind what they are expressing. At this point I will stress that this is not necessarily a technique that can be used in a clinical setting, you can use it with friends and family to simply help them move through an issue or problem that they might be experiencing right now.
In mirroring, we are essentially repeating, almost word for word, what it is that the client has expressed to us. It does not need to be complicated and drawn out – remember that we are primarily listening here, not expressing ourselves or our opinion – and should focus on a few of the key words and what we have perceived to be the important points of the last few minutes of listening. A very simply example might look like this;
Client: ‘Every time I have tried to eat well and start a new exercise regime I just feel that life has gotten in the way and I haven’t been able to prioritise my eating and exercise so I just give up’.
You: ‘So you feel that you have tried many times before to eat well and exercise but you just haven’t been able to maintain it’?
As you can see, the most basic form of reflective listening is to succinctly repeat what the client has said to us. This will almost always lead to the client continuing to express their point and elaborate further. It demonstrates to the client that you are listening and will help to foster trust and rapport within the client towards you. Mirroring is one of the most fundamentally critical components of reflective listening.
The other important component of reflective listening is paraphrasing. Paraphrasing takes mirroring one step further and requires a new layer of skill. This is because it requires words other than the ones that the client has said to you. It demonstrates to the client that not only are you listening, but that you understand what they are expressing. There is a trap that you might fall into here, however, and it is critical that you are aware of it. At this stage it is common to insert your own opinion or ideas into the reflection process and this is not the time to do that. We are still trying to guide the client through the stages of expressing themselves as freely as possible in order to get to the root of why they need our help and why they have come to us in the first place. By inadvertently inserting your own opinion or thoughts you can build resistance in the client if they believe that you are not seeing the issue from their perspective, and this can be disastrous for the relationship and therefore disastrous for the outcome.
An example of a paraphrase might be;
Client: ‘Every time I feel stressed I just eat a piece of chocolate. I just feel so bad and I know that I shouldn’t do it. But it just seems to be something that I automatically do’.
You: ‘You really don’t like the way you feel after you eat chocolate even though it feels like the right thing to do when you are stressed. You wish you could stop it’.
Certainly, there is a higher level of skill involved in reflective listening than active listening, and to become good at it takes time. I am certainly still working on it myself. We all have a tendency to offer our input to someone when they have come to us with a problem. This is what Stephen Rollnick calls the ‘righting reflex’. As it is a reflex it can be challenging to avoid, but in order to become a good listener and move on to the next level of listening we have to work on ourselves to avoid this common pitfall. We need to avoid high-risk responses such as agreement statements, judgments, diagnoses, premature problem-solving, logical arguing, withdrawal, and even praise - all of which can be communication barriers that prevent a speaker from fully expressing themselves.
And that is the key point, that the aim here is always to ensure, to the best of our ability, that we are allowing the client to express themselves as freely as possible. It is only when the client expresses themselves fully, that we can ever have the best chance of being able to help them in the best way possible.
If I could summarise the most important points they would be to:
- Be natural.
- Listen for the basic message - consider the content, feeling and meaning expressed by the speaker.
- Restate what you have been told in simple terms.
- When restating, look for non-verbal as well as verbal cues that confirm or deny the accuracy of your paraphrasing. (Note that some speakers may pretend you have got it right because they feel unable to assert themselves and disagree with you.)
- Do not question the speaker unnecessarily.
- Do not add to the speaker's meaning.
- Do not take the speaker's topic in a new direction.
- Always be non-directive and non-judgemental.
Good luck and, as always, practice!
Yours in Health!