I’ve been trying to do more reflective listening recently. When I first heard about it, it sounded like you just repeat back to the other person what they have said.
Friend: I’m ashamed to tell her the truth.
You: You’re ashamed to tell her the truth …
But since I’ve been exploring empathy, I now understand that it’s about really trying to deeply understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings without judgement or analysis and reflect back to them what you are hearing that is almost beneath their words. I tried this out with my son on the weekend when he’d had a fight with his friend.
They had been playing Minecraft and the friend was attacking him (in the game) and doing things against him even though my son kept asking him not to and for them to work together as a team. Finally, my son got really angry and asked me to take his friend home. When he was calm enough to tell me what was going on, I just held him as he cried and told me what his friend had been doing. E.g. “He kept attacking me. And I asked him not to but he kept doing it and then he forced me over the cliff and there are zombies down there but I’m frightened of zombies. Why did he do that? I asked him not to! He’s so mean!”. I held him and occasionally expressed what I understood he was telling me: “so you really wanted him to work alongside you, to support you, not to work against you. Is that it?” “yes!”. There were a lot of silences too, when I just held him. After a while of listening to him express himself and occasionally repeating back what I was understanding, he seemed satisfied. I went to his friend and asked if he wanted to talk to my son. He nodded. I asked if he wanted to talk to him alone or with me there to support them (in the past, I’ve played the role of mediator). He wanted to talk to him alone. After a couple of minutes, my son came back and said “I think we’re both just tired after the sleepover. We’re going to do something else now like a board game”.
I’ve helped them through conflict in the past by insisting on mediating between them but it’s been a bit forced and it has taken much longer for them to work through their anger and reach a shared understanding. This time it was resolved much quicker and easier and I think it’s because I just let my son vent and I focused on listening to his feelings and needs underneath his anger without any interpretation or insisting that they talk to each other so he seemed ready to forgive his friend much sooner than in the past.
Carl Rogers, founder of the humanist psychology movement, talks of the “helping relationships” – not just therapists but also teachers, parents and many other roles. I think if we all learnt to listen to each other in more of a “helping” way, we probably wouldn’t need therapists nearly as much. I think people are starving to be listened to and maybe that’s why it’s so common for us to turn conversations onto ourselves.
I notice how often my thoughts turn to my own experiences when someone else is speaking. So my practice now is to gently bring my thoughts back to the other person and to try to stay curious about what’s going on for them when they are speaking and also be aware of why they are telling me (i.e. do they just want to be heard? Are they actually making a request?). I’m enjoying the experience and the deeper feelings of connection I experience with people when I do this. Lately, I have a sense that people “see” me more than they used to, and see more of the “real” me. When I’m really present with people, they seem to be more aware of me. I wonder if it’s because I’m much more present with them – less conscious of what’s going on in me, more tuned into them and so they feel my presence more somehow.