Reflective Listening: Level up your communication skills

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

One thing that I work with many of my clients on during sessions is effective communication. As many people have experienced, poor communication can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and compiling resentment. However, communicating effectively is a skill. Most people aren’t taught how to be great communicators growing up and thus it can be a struggle as we form relationships throughout our life.

A skill that I help many clients develop is called reflective listening or, simply, reflection. This is a basic technique used by therapists to convey understanding and acknowledgment of their client’s experiences and feelings during sessions. This technique is easy to learn but difficult to master. However, in my experience, it proves to be one of the most effective ways to quickly and simply improve your communication with others.

There are two primary forms of reflective listening that are most useful to clients: a reflection of content and reflection of feeling.

Reflection of Content

Reflection of content is the foundational form of reflective listening. It also is the easiest. All that is required is for you to repeat back what you heard the other person saying. Before making your response, try to quickly summarize the important parts of what the other person was sharing. This is beneficial for you as the listener and the other person as the speaker. Firstly, you get to communicate what you heard the other person talking about to confirm that you understood them correctly. Secondly, this conveys to the speaker that you were listening.

You will be surprised by how quickly your conversations will shift as you begin to implement this skill. People will react more positively to what you are saying and sometimes engage in reflective listening with you. Granted, you do not want to use this with every response that you give as that would be tiresome and unauthentic.

However, I recommend you start using it any time that you experience confusion when another person seems to be repeating themselves or trying to be heard in other ways. As you practice, you will get better at incorporating concise and natural summarizations into your conversations.

Reflections of Feelings

This form of reflection moves to the next, deeper stage of communication. Emotions.

Reflecting a person’s feelings coveys that you understand the emotional experience of the speaker. You are validating and recognizing the other person.

Have you ever been in an argument about one topic and then the topic shifts to something seemingly unrelated? What relates to these two topics is the feeling. Something about the first topic emotionally connects to the second topic. Typically when these shifts happen, a person is processing or trying to communicate their emotional response to a situation. Simply identifying that emotion in the other person can help them feel understood and heard.

These reflections can be short or brief statements.

“You’re feeling sad.”

“You seem joyful.”

“I’m experiencing you as aggravated right now.”

There is little need to elaborate on how you know they are feeling what they are feeling. Simply recognizing the emotion is the goal.

What makes these reflections difficult is that you have to make sure you can identify your emotional responses separately from the other person’s emotions. For example, think about your emotional response to someone showing up 30 minutes late to an appointment you had made with them. What emotion comes up for you when you consider that situation? How intense is that emotion?

When someone shares a similar experience with you, it is important to recognize your own reactions. If not, you could identify your own anger as the other person’s anger. However, that person might be experiencing homelessness.

This skill takes practice but can be helpful when you are unsure how to support another person. It can be hard to know how to support someone when they share an impactful experience with you. Most people seek validation and understanding when sharing their pain with others. Reflecting their feelings is the best way to offer that to another person and show that you care.

Final thoughts

Reflective listening is a skill. It takes practice to develop the ability to identify important content and feelings in someone’s speech and then retell that information to them. Be patient with yourself as you try to incorporate reflective listening into your conversations. There will be times you focus on the wrong topic or point out the wrong emotion. It’s okay. You are still communicating to the other person that you are trying to hear them. For most, that is the important thing.


If you're struggling, seek help. Sharp Wellness offers individual, couples, family, and group therapy to help support you and help you live your best life. Contact us now.

Jordan Richardson, MS LPC-A

Supervised by Barbara Armitage, MA LPC-S

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