This blog is the transcript of Episode #67 of “Under 10: A Mini Podcast on Intimacy”. Listen along here.
Last episode I shared about how when we make love to our partners as an ongoing, intentional practice, it can be a powerful bridge through moments of disconnection. If you missed that episode, be sure to subscribe to my Patreon page to catch up – that address is in the show notes.
This week, in light of the recent school shooting and the abundance of pain, frustration, and horror that has cloaked our country like a gritty silt, I wanted to revisit one of my favorite topics: how to listen to one another. Episodes 16 and 42 were my first two installments on this topic and are worth going back to and checking out. In this episode, I’m going to build on those first two and teach you the most basic listening tool I know. Though it’s simple, it has the power to help us emotionally metabolize events that can seem too much to feel on our own. Think of this show like a “how to” for a basic building block of listening. I’m so glad you tuned in and I hope you will consider putting this tool to practice. Everyone I know could use this type of support right now.
“Reflective listening” is the name of the tool. It involves saying back to the listener what you heard them say, as close to the words they use as possible. That, in essence, is it.
Most of you likely learned this practice in your intro psych classes in high school. It’s so simple that I was tempted to call this episode, “Listening for dummies”, except that there’s no such thing as listening for dummies because listening always takes intelligence. Still, I can’t emphasize enough that what makes reflective listening work is how straightforward and unadorned it is as a communication practice.
Let’s say I share with you, “I’ve been feeling really distracted lately. It’s been hard to focus and I find myself scattered and kind of in a daze”. If you were the listener, you would say back to me, “I hear you saying that you’ve been distracted lately, struggling to focus and finding yourself scattered and in a daze”. In this example, you as the listener have repeated almost word for word what I have said.
It’s okay if you’re skeptical at this point. This response may not sound organic or natural, though a soft tone of voice can help. In fact it could even sound weirdly robotic. I’ve heard this tool described as the “Robot Psychiatrist”. I will admit, I have long had my own resistance to reflective listening.
The thing is…despite how engineered reflective listening may seem…it, just, works. I have seen it happen over and over again that in intense moments, reflective listening can soothe the anguished soul. Here’s why.
For most people, when we listen, we hear a combination of what the other person has actually said and what they have said through the filters we each wear over our ears formed by our life experiences. We hear partly what came out of their mouths and partly what comes out of our own heads. Often, we then respond based on a somewhat distorted version of their communication. And the more pain we are carrying, especially if it is in connection to the listener, the more we are going to distort what was said and respond to the fears in our heads rather than the words that were spoken.
This is totally common. It doesn’t make you bad if you do it. But it does come with costs. For example, it risks recycling old wounds between you and the other person. It gets in the way of the chance that you may eventually be heard by them. And it lessens the chance that the other person feels heard by you.
Reflective listening, as perhaps you can already tell, corrects for this super common tendency to distort because it involves sticking to the words the person used; requires no interpretation or analysis; and keeps the focus on the speaker for the duration of the practice. In this way, it has these kind of tight rails that ensure the listener gets the experience of feeling heard while diminishing the risk of triggers and bringing a greater sense of compassion and generosity into the connection.
Let’s focus for a moment on what “feeling heard” signifies. You probably know what it’s like not to feel heard. That sensation of feeling alone, perhaps like you don’t matter, wondering if anyone cares and likely feeling overwhelmed or even numb. The experience of not feeling heard can also conjure childhood memories of not being listened to by caregivers and the deep pain of that.
Feeling heard, on the other hand, is I believe one of the greatest gifts we can receive from our relationships to lessen suffering. It can bring enormous relief. It can feel like you aren’t carrying the weight of your burdens alone. And what may have been numb in your body can move closer to feeling. Anger can ease into sorrow. Panic can melt into grief. Dissociation can fall away as you come back to your body. Often, racing thoughts can quiet.
Feeling heard is transformative and healing. In this time of enormous pain in the world, one of the nutrients that can feed our malnourished hearts comes from being deeply heard.
Reflecting listening is one way to ensure that someone feels heard. By repeating the other person’s words back to them – especially as closely as possible to the words they used – you are saying to them, I can track your words and honor the ones you chose and let you know that when you said them, I was right here and they registered for me. You are also saying, I am willing to resist the urge to try to change your experience. I will not try to change you. I will just listen to what it’s like to be you and reflect that back.
That last part in particular – resisting the urge to resolve the issue rather than just hear the issue – is harder than it seems. But with practice, and as long as you allow yourself to stick to the guidelines, you can learn to keep your listening soft and reflective.
Now imagine you are at the receiving end of me reflectively listening to you. Perhaps you share with me something like, “I find myself numbed off from my heart. I’m able to get in touch with my anger but the softer feelings underneath feel so far away”. And imagine I’m sitting across from you and I gently say back, “I hear you saying that you find yourself numbed off from your heart. And that you can feel your anger but the other, softer feelings seem far away or out of reach”. Take a breath in. How might that feel to you?
A strong reflective listening statement may encourage you to feel more, to share more and to go deeper. It’s an invitation, a beckoning, that says, I’m here, I’m with you, you have permission to be where you are, feel what you’re feeling and share more if you wish.
Because of its simplicity, it can help people “catch up” to themselves by just hearing their own words back without a push to go faster or a judgment about how slowly they may be going. By giving their words back to them, you have the potential to help them go from numb to feeling, which is like going from dead to alive. This is perhaps one of the greatest gifts of this tool.
For this week’s homework, first listen to Episodes 16 and 42 to remind you of other forms of compassionate listening. Then find a practice partner – a friend or your partner or even a colleague – set a timer and take turns speaking and reflectively listening. You decide how long each person will play each role. When I meet with my listening practice partner, we do rounds of 30 minutes each which works for our needs. You can start with rounds of 5 minutes to begin. When it’s your turn to reflectively listen, start with, “What I heard you say is”, and consider ending with the question, “Did I miss or distort anything?” This follow up is important. You don’t have to do it perfectly when you build in this question because the other person will tell you what you missed. Stay slow. Breathe between shares. Notice the urge to take away their pain and see if you can stay with how you feel in connection to them while you share their words back.
Though it can seem so simple, reflective listening has the potential to help us all catch up to our hearts and bodies in this time of great tragedy and also great potential for change. I hope you will consider responding to the call for “all ears on deck” and putting this healing tool to practice in the service of the relationships in your life.