Reflective Listening: The Communication Tool You’ve Been Looking For

One of my favorite therapeutic tools is to teach couples reflective listening. When used well, it has the power to break through an argument that has reached an impasse; uncover deep vulnerable feelings; and break the cycle of those same arguments you have all the time. Reflective listening is slow, methodical. It is the antithesis of a heated, fast-moving argument. The rhythm of reflective listening causes us to slow down, breathe, listen... and then validate. The heart of this communication tool is validating your partner. Even when you do not agree. Let me repeat... Even when you do not agree! It’s a common myth that to validate your partner means you concede to their point. Or agree when you really don’t. It feels like a power struggle. What validation actually looks like is a willingness to step in your partner’s shoes for a bit, in the shared space of vulnerability and make the invisible, visible. To tell your partner that you have heard not only the words they said, but also the hiding emotion underneath. Some couples don’t habitually get this deep or feel like they need to protect their vulnerable emotions. If this is the case, engaging in this way of speaking, reflecting and validation and feel clunky. But, with time and practice (and positive reinforcement from being validated from your partner), most couples start doing this pretty well. If not, this is where your therapist can come in and guide you. Ready to try? One partner will be the listener and the other the speaker. Both partners will have a turn. The speaker will start bringing up a topic from his or her perspective. “I felt.... About this situation...” or “For me, when ... happened, I felt ....” The listening partner will reflect back what they heard the speaker say. “What I hear you saying is...” Notice that the speaker is speaking about a past event that has already happened. The listener, however, stays in the present. Because the listener’s job is not to revisit the past and rehash the details. The listener’s job is to *stay present* with their partner who is speaking to them. “What I hear you saying...” is a powerful validation. It means you are listening. It means you care about their experience. It means noticing your partner more in that moment than your ego who wants to defend itself. At this point, the speaker can say something like “Yes, you got it.” Or, they can further clarify, “Yes, but also...”. With a clarification, the listener reflects back again until the speaker feels heard. Then, partners swap roles. Speaker becomes listener and listener becomes speaker. Please note that it is very important that both partners get a chance to be a speaker and listener. It may be tempting to start getting back into the fight, or missed details or even problem-solving for the future. Both partners deserve the chance to speak and be heard. Once done, you will likely find that you both feel you’re back on neutral ground or ideally, drawn to your partner as you have shared safe space for each other. I have had the honor of teaching this tool to hundreds of couples over the years. I have seen years-old arguments suddenly disappear. I have seen emotionally stoic partners visibly touched when their partners validated them. And I have felt the energy shift in the room from partners against each other to partners united, feeling giddy and optimistic. Reflective listening is the tool you’ve been looking for.

Jenny Elledge, LMFT

Jenny is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples counseling, faith transitions, mixed-faith relationships, life transitions and parenting issues. She is well-versed in working with entrepreneurs and telecommuters and the intersection of work/home balance. Additionally, she assists those with anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD and trauma work. She offers both therapy and coaching services in-office and online for couples, adults, older children and teenagers.

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