By Dale Olsen, President and CEO
When talking about communication skills, people often talk about both active listening and reflective listening. These techniques are used by those who are successful communicators. They are an important part of leadership, suicide intervention, sales, criminal interrogations, counseling, job interviews, health-care, and every day communication. Most definitions I have found for these terms are more complex than the concepts. The terms seem to have varying descriptions (depending on the source) but involve focusing on what the other person is saying and how that person is saying it.
For what it’s worth, Wikipedia has provided simple definitions that I liked better than most others because of their clarity:
Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to feed back what he hears to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what he has heard in his own words, to confirm what he has heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.
Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps: seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. It attempts to “reconstruct what the client is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to the client”. Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than the more general methods of active listening. It arose from Carl Rogers’ school of client-centered therapy in counseling theory.
A key part of the active listening definition is “in his own words” because it excludes using the same words. However, this definition seems more like that of reflective listening than others I’ve found. Other definitions put more activity in the active listening by requiring the mood, tone, and gestures to be reflected. I must admit that the distinction is not clear and that people could argue about whether a specific response is an example of reflective listening, active listening, or both. Is one a subset of the other? Whatever they are, active listening and reflective listening are viewed as a critical element of skilled communications. I found Wikipedia’s contrast of these ideas interesting.
I am hoping that this post will draw out your comments on how people communicate, and your experiences with the use of these techniques. The exact definitions are not as important as people’s experience with the use of these techniques. I am often aware when these techniques are being used on me, and perhaps it is a little annoying. Yet, these techniques are an essential part of advanced communication skills and they work. What happens when they are over used? What is the right mix of reflections and probing question? Does the answer to these questions depend on the field of interest? Are people more aware when clinicians use these techniques because they are expected to use these techniques?