Reflective Emotional Listening

This is a term I came up with after working with a couple who I realised were having trouble hearing each other emotionally. Both of them felt as though their feelings were going unheard by the other, and this was driving a wedge between them.

I based my idea on ‘Reflective Listening’ on an aura colour featured in my book Aura Colour Therapy, a colour called call ‘Listen Blue’. Here is an excerpt:

“Listen Blue enhances our ability to listen attentively and focus on the person who is speaking, so we can gather knowledge and skills. To ensure we have heard and understood, we need to repeat the instructions or information back to the speaker or teacher using our own words. This is called active listening. We cannot listen actively if our mind wanders off, we interrupt people, or we mentally compose what we are going to say next while the other person is still speaking.”

Reflective Emotional Listening by comparison, places emphasis on hearing the emotions being expressed, rather than just the words or facts, and reflecting these emotions back to the person speaking. This serves two functions. First, it keeps the lines of communication open between you while you go through the process of ensuring that you have clearly understood what the other person is saying. Secondly, it helps the speaker feel heard and felt.

We hear the words another person says through the filter of our own psyche, with all it’s conditioning, wounds, insecurities, preconceptions and unique values systems. The reflective emotional listening process can help us hear what the other person is attempting to communicate about their feelings without so much of our own stuff getting in the way and muddying the waters. It helps switch the emphasis off self onto other and hopefully by-pass or at least reduce our own defensiveness and reactivity in response to another person’s feelings.

The first time I used this technique in clinic, I asked the man in the relationship to express how he felt to his wife. He did so and then paused, waiting for her response. I had asked her to try reflective emotional listening, but on her first attempt, she reacted emotionally to what her husband was saying, took it personally, and became defensive. Instead of using reflective emotional listening, she justified and explained herself. She wanted to be understood without first making an attempt to understand. Naturally, her husband felt exasperated and rolled his eyes.

So we tried again a second time. New behaviours always take practice and our first attempts might be a little messy and muddled, but that’s okay! You just keep trying.

On her second attempt, she managed to avoid being defensive, but instead of using reflective emotional listening, she started offering solutions. The implied message was ‘If you just listen to me, take my sensible advice and do as I say, everything will be fine.’ Again, her husband saw red, because she wasn’t listening to his feelings.

Being defensive by justifying and explaining, or offering unsolicited advice, are two listening strategies that often don’t work when someone wants to talk about their feelings. Explaining and offering solutions can come later, if need be, AFTER you hear a person’s feeling and reflect them back…. but not before. Defending and providing solutions can make people feel unheard and they will tend to become reactive or shut down the communication because it seems pointless to them. Not feeling heard and felt by another person can make us feel isolated and disconnected from them.

The third attempt was an event worth waiting for. Not only did she use top-quality reflectively emotional listening, it sounded heart-felt and authentic! Her husband’s reaction was amazing! Gone was the anger and the stony face. A softness washed over his features and a small glimmer shone in his eyes. He turned to face her completely, and said “Yes! That’s how I feel” Then he added to this, explaining his feelings more deeply. His wife continued to reflect his feelings back to him and he went deeper and deeper.

I could see light-bulbs going off for both of them. Feeling heard and having his feeling reflected back to him helped the husband understand his feeling with greater clarity. The openness from his wife enabled him to break through his emotional stagnation (to the exasperated listener this stagnation can sound like a broken record or ‘complaining’). Feeling felt helped him process the emotion and take it to the next step. Likewise, his wife was hearing so much more than she had every heard before and was really starting to grasp the depth of his feeling, and the complexity of it. She was empathising with him.

The most beautiful part of all of this was that the husband, through the exchange unfolding between them, arrived at his own perfect solution.

It can be very difficult to stay detached enough to be a good listener, especially when emotions are running high and you feel as though you are being attacked, or that you should rescue the other person from their situation by offering solutions. Solutions can seem perfectly obvious to us when we’re standing on the outside, but the other person isn’t us and we aren’t standing in their shoes. Helping another person process their own emotions by being a good listener is a fantastic way to help them find their own answers.

You can practise this process at home with your loved ones. It might be challenging at first, but it gets easier with practise. I also ask my clients to express themselves in ways that are respectful towards one another as much as possible, even when emotions are running high. You can still argue and be kind to each other.

Here are some examples of reflective emotional listening.

HUSBAND: “I had a really crappy day at work! That new boss did it to me again, looking over my shoulder and correcting everything! I’m sick of it!”

Reflective emotional listening:

“Wow, sounds like a horrible day. It’s must be pretty awful having someone micro-managing you all the time.”

Show some interest and invite your partner to tell you more. From here, your partner can respond, by adding information about how they feel, and you can continue with reflective emotional listening to facilitate their emotional processing. Hopefully the intense emotion will discharge a little as the conversation continues, via the process of feeling heard. You partner may even come up with a helpful perspective or strategy to improve the situation they are unhappy about.

If the person expressing can’t shift out of this emotional state after plenty of reflective listening on your behalf, you may need to gently shift gears and be more proactive, but only do this AFTER you have empathised with them. They will be far more receptive to suggestions, distractions and reframing once they have felt emotionally heard.

Here’s another example:

WIFE: “I can’t believe you stayed back late at work again! It seems like it’s always me  picking up the kids and cooking dinner. I’ve had enough!”

A very basic reflective emotional listening response might sound like this “So you feel fed up and exhausted, and you’re angry with me because I’m not doing my fair share?” But be careful. Tone and nuance is important and when people are upset with us, it doesn’t cost much to extend some warmth, even if we are feeling misunderstood, judged etc. If you can respond in a more loving manner, you will diffuse some of the angst and hopefully put the other person in a position where they feel more emotionally receptive to hearing your side of the story. Here’s a modified version showing more warmth:

HUSBAND’S RESPONSE: “It has been happening a lot lately. I’m so sorry. I really appreciate everything you do, and all the amazing support you’ve been giving me. I’m really close to getting this submission completed. Maybe I could bring it home and do it after the kids go to bed. I love you so much and I don’t want you to feel I’m taking advantage of you, or that I don’t care about how you feel.”

In this situation (when someone is cross with you) offering solutions is actually a good idea… self-responsible solutions that is, not the ‘you need to do this’ (e.g. get over it) kind of solution.

Give what you most what to receive: If you want to be heard and understood, give this to the people you want it from and you are more likely to receive it in turn.