Reflective listening is a key skill in which you show you have accurately heard and understood the client’s communication by restating its meaning. You hazard an informed guess about what the client intended to communicate and then convey this in a responsive statement, not a question. Reflective listening is a way you can confirm understanding, rather than taking for granted that you know what is meant.
Reflective listening reinforces the empathic relationship between you and client and encourages further exploration. Reflective listening decreases the chances of resistance, encourages the client to keep talking, communicates respect, strengthens working relationships, clarifies precisely what the client means, and reinforces motivation.
Listening is a complex skill that involves attending to, receiving and understanding the verbal and non-verbal messages the client is communicating. The main purpose of listening is to assist understanding between you and the client so you can reach a common agreement about the client’s issues or concerns. It is impossible to attend to and listen to absolutely everything, so you need to sort the information and decide what to respond to. You will then form hypotheses about what the client is saying (or leaving out).
Nobody listens to other people in a totally disinterested or unbiased way. Everybody has filters through which information passes. This helps to organise information but unavoidably introduces bias by filtering out certain aspects of the interaction. These filters may include:
- Culture:if you know about your own and others’ cultures, you will be better able to listen and understand more effectively. However, cultural values and norms can often be the most difficult to rise above
- Values: you need to be aware of your own values and, whenever possible, avoid forcing them on the client, either openly or covertly. You need to try to free yourself of beliefs about how the client should live their life – i.e. do not be judgemental
- Personal issues: people normally have some problems or difficulties at some time in their lives – this applies equally to you. You need to be wary of letting these preoccupy you and leave you less open to your client. It is necessary to try to put concerns aside when working with a client.
There are other obstacles that can negatively affect active and reflective listening. These include:
- Thinking about and preparing what to say in response to what the client is saying
- Becoming defensive or thinking you are inadequate when the client disagrees, corrects or shows resistance
- Seeking evidence for hypotheses and ignoring information coming from the client that contradicts these hypotheses
- Feeling anxious about what the client is saying
- Attempting to discover a solution
Attending well, actively and reflectively listening to the client, and being aware of filters and issues that you may have, is the starting point for understanding the client.