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July 7

How to Be a Pro at Active Listening



How to Be a Pro at Active Listening


Why Active Listening Does Not Work

The title of this article,”How to Become a Pro at Active Listening,” is a lie. The truth is, active listening does not work. But, people have heard the term “active listening” and associate it with effective listening skills. I will explain why active listening is a failed skill and show you how to enhance your communications skills through reflective listening.  I will share three key practices that will make you an effective listener and eliminate all the communication barriers that you might experience when you’re talking with or listening to other people.

Since the mid-1950s, psychologists, counselors, therapists, peacemakers and mediators have mistakenly tried to create empathy through the use of “I” statements during active listening. Well, it turns out that “I” statements are important, but not for creating empathy, and certainly not for deescalating anger or other strong emotions.

“I” Statements Make People Angry

Saying something like “What I hear you saying is that you are angry,” or “what I think you’re feeling is rage,” or any other statement that starts with the phrase “What I think you are,” or “what it seems like you are,” create barriers to effective communication. They do not demonstrate active listening to the speaker.

These statements are not  you-focused, they are I-focused and they use passive voice, which disconnects you from the speaker. When you say “What I think you’re feeling is X,” it’s all about you, the listener, not about the speaker. When you’re engaged in effective listening, you have to listen from the speaker’s frame of reference.

When you use an “I” statement, the speaker only hears the “I,” not the” you,” and usually feels patronize, manipulated, and emotionally invalidated.

This mistaken formula quickly caught on in the 1960s as the way to express empathy, and it doesn’t work. It never has worked and it never will work, and yet it persists in our culture today as the appropriate way to engage in effective active listening.

In fact, it’s a terrible way to listen, and I will show you that there’s a better way. So let’s talk about the difference between reflective listening and active listening. How to Honor Your Emotions With This 1 Powerful Tool


The Power of Reflective Listening, Not Active Listening

In reflective listening, we always reflect from the speaker’s frame of reference, and that means using a “you” statement, not an “I” statement.There are four levels of reflecting, some of which you’ve probably heard before.

The First Level of Reflective Listening: Mirroring

The first level of reflective listening is called mirroring. This is where you repeat back word for word what the speaker is saying. Mirroring is a poor way to engage in reflective listening unless you and the speaker have to be in absolute agreement over what’s to be done.

You would use mirroring for a task, a list, or some kind of performance where there are items that have to be checked off and you and your speaker completely agree on what’s going to be done.

In this case, mirroring is really handy.  Here’s a quick example. I’m a pilot, so when I get a clearance from air traffic control, I have to write the clearance down on a notepad in my airplane, and then I’ve have to repeat back verbatim, word for word what that clearance is back to the air traffic controller so that we both are on the same page about what’s going to happen after I take off. I literally mirror the clearance instructions back to the controller, and if I get it right, the controller says “Readback correct.”

This is when mirroring is most effective and useful. It’s not good for anything else other than making sure that information between two people is absolutely crystal clear.

active listening

The Second Level of Reflective Listening: Paraphrasing

The next level of reflective listening is called paraphrasing. You’ve probably heard about paraphrasing before.

It’s very simple. All you do is reflect back the speaker’s words by summarizing them in your own voice. It’s just a quick summary in your own words of the gist of what the speaker has said.

The purpose of paraphrasing is to let the speaker know you understood the words the speaker spoke. You are verifying that you understood what the speaker said.

When you paraphrase, do not use the old active listening “I” statement. Instead, paraphrase with a “You” statement. For example, “You said that you expect the weather to be nice tomorrow for your planned hike.”

The Third Level of Reflective Listening: Core Messaging

The third level of reflecting is called core messaging. When you core message, you’re not listening to the words as much as you’re listening to the underlying meaning the speaker is trying to convey.

You’ve been in situations where your speaker is just going on and on and on and on and can’t ever get to the point. You really wonder, “How long do I have to sit here and listen to this person?” Well, that person is  struggling to figure out what she is trying to mean. You will use core messaging as a method of helping the speaker find meaning by stating back the speaker’s intended meeting with a metaphor. Again, you always use a “You” statement, not the old active listening “I” statement.

As an example, you might say, “It’s like you were walking in a forest on a moonlit winter night, watching the snowflakes gently falling when the wind picked up and you were caught in a surprise blizzard. You were completely disoriented and lost.”

The Fourth Level of Reflective Listening: Affect Labeling

The last and deepest level of reflective listening is affect labeling. When affect labeling, you ignore the words, read the speaker’s emotions, and reflect back those emotions with a simple “you” statement.

As an example,  you would say something like, “You’re anxious and angry. You’re frustrated. You feel disrespected. You’re sad. You feel abandoned. You feel humiliated and embarrassed.” Whatever the emotions are that the speaker is experiencing will be reflected back through you, the listener, so that the speaker can reactivate a part of the brain known as the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex.

There are brain-scanning studies that show that when a person is affect labeled, they calm down within 45 to 90 seconds. They can’t help themselves. It’s the way their brains are hardwired.

Deep reflective listening is the most powerful relationship tool in your toolbox, and so will want to develop reflective listening instead of active listening.

I have an online course that teaches all of these skills. You can find out more here.

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About the Author

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, speaker, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts.


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