Reflective listening is interacting to understand

Reflective listening is interacting to understand[1]

Reflective listening reflects the speaker’s attitudes

Rogers offers two guidelines for clarifications. First, they must be crafted exclusively out of what the client has already said, and second, they must clarify an insight that the client has already had.

Later, Rogers refers to a session transcript that shows how a therapist… specifically mirrors the client’s attitudes, rather than the client’s actual words. In this transcript, the therapist rarely says anything that could be construed as a reflection of the client’s speech.

Rogers and Wallen contend that… only two therapist moves are needed: simple acceptance of the client’s remarks with statements like ‘‘I see’’ or ‘‘yes,’’ and reflection of feeling.

Rogers and Wallen sometimes refers to the client’s feelings, but at other times to so-called emotionalized attitudes. For example, Rogers and Wallen give the example of a client who feels his wife is inconsiderate, and suggests the reflection: ‘‘You feel that she is pretty selfish.’’ This is not exactly a feeling per se, and appears to be an example of what Rogers and Wallen mean by emotionalized attitude.

Reflective listening reflects the listener’s empathy

…the therapist’s attitude is also vitally important. Reflection of feeling, then, is not a technique, but a method of implementing client-centered attitudes of acceptance and understanding.

True empathy, Rogers implies, is inherently provisional. In this respect, reflections of feeling are verbalizations of thoughts that tend to naturally enter the mind of a therapist who maintains an empathic attitude.

When the optimal attitude is achieved, the relationship between the therapist’s inner experience and his or her verbalizations becomes nearly seamless. The therapist simply gives voice to her or his thoughts, which are already empathic.

Rogerian empathy… is an ideal state of exquisitely sensitive moment-to-moment attunement to the client’s flow of experience that is so thoroughly immersive that Rogers goes so far as to call it ‘‘trancelike.’’

He reconceptualizes empathy as an iterative relational process in which the therapist participates, rather than a process occurring within the mind of the therapist. Empathy is a way of being with another person.

Reflective listening is closer understanding

First, every reflection must include an implied question to the client: Is what I am saying now precisely accurate for you? Second, every reflection must include an implied invitation: If what I am saying is not precisely accurate for you, help me revise my perception so that it is closer to your own.

…he suggests that reflections be renamed ‘‘testing understandings’’ or ‘‘checking perceptions.’’ These phrasings are attempts to further transform the reflection of feeling into an interactional concept. Reflection, here, refers not to the therapist’s speech itself, but purely to how it is experienced by the client.

What is to the therapists a messy series of rough approximations appears to the client as a seamless surface of understanding.

Reflective listening recommendations

  1. Reflections should be directed to the emotional essence of what the client has expressed, and/or to the client’s felt sense of their emerging experiencing, rather than to concrete issues.
  2. Reflections must congruently implement therapist attitudes of acceptance and empathy.
  3. Reflections are part of an empathic dialogue. Accordingly, they must include the implicit invitation for the client to check their accuracy with the client’s inner felt experiencing, and to correct them if needed.
  4. Reflections may be safest when sculpted out of material drawn from the client’s remarks, and when they further develop insights that have already begun to emerge in the client, rather than referring to feelings and attitudes that the client has not yet expressed. However, if the empathic dialogue has advanced to the point that client and therapist are in a shared altered state of consciousness (=empathy trance), therapist understandings may emerge naturally as remarks that may appear unrelated to what the client has explicitly said.
  5. To be in a position to effectively use reflections, the therapist may cultivate an empathic frame of mind. If this underlying attitude is absent, reflections may be incongruent and, therefore, are unlikely to be effective.
  6. Reflections are best couched in provisional rather than declarative form [reflections are best when they’re tentative, not authoritative].
  7. Reflections should not interrupt the flow of the client’s process.[2]

  1. Minarik, Susan K. “Can You Hear Me Now? A Positive Guide to Listening Well.” Positive-Living-Now, 4 Sep. 2010, www.positive-living-now.com/can-you-hear-me-now-a-positive-guide-to-listening-well/. Accessed 1 June 2017.
  2. Arnold, Kyle. “Behind the mirror: Reflective listening and its tain in the work of Carl Rogers.” The Humanistic Psychologist 42.4 (2014): 354-369.

Reflective listening is helped by observing and getting in sync

Active listening by observing and getting in sync makes you come across as good-natured[1]

Reflective listening is easier when you factor in social styles

The Social Styles Profile, an adjective checklist that shows how people consistently describe others, was developed using factor analysis. Originally, our factor analysis had shown us five clusters or scales: 1) assertiveness; 2) versatility; 3) responsiveness; 4) aloofness; and 5) easygoing.

For the assertiveness scale, a very high odd-even reliability of 0.93 was found. The versatility scale had a reliability of 0.91. In testing the responsiveness and aloofness scales, we found some overlap of adjectives; thus, we combined these two scales, with a resulting reliability of 0.70. The easygoing scale did not have enough reliability to be statistically meaningful, and it was dropped.

…our research group investigated the question of whether one rater’s evaluation of a subject correlates with that of two other raters… The results were that assertiveness and responsiveness showed a significant positive correlation among raters; versatility was also positively correlated among raters, but the correlation was not as strong…

…because it appears that the versatility score, unlike the other two, has some positive and negative connotations to it—more endorsement versus less endorsement—we chose to keep it separate from the other two scales. Numerous studies have proved our contention that assertiveness and responsiveness are not a measure of success or endorsement, but that versatility is.

After the raw scores had been tallied, the scales were divided into fourths, so that 25 percent of the population was in each quartile.

Successful, well-regarded career persons were found along all ranges of the assertiveness and responsiveness scales—just as were less successful individuals.

Social styles labels analytical, driver, amiable, expressive, assertiveness, and responsiveness help with active listening

Social styles labels [2]

Reflective listening using social styles in turn means focusing on observables

Observables labels bring out the dimensions and combinations of the social styles, which helps with active listening

Observables labels

Assertiveness is a valid observable. Assertiveness values run along a well-understood continuum of passive—assertive—aggressive.

Openness conveys that what’s observed is how much a person holds his emotions closed-in or out in the open. Openness values run along a continuum of controlled—balanced—emotive.

Looking ahead, observing will be simpler if you can focus on the strongest variation in assertiveness or openness. Also, getting in sync will be simpler if you can benefit from the existing balance in your social style.

The assertive style can be learned. Start out balanced, and you can flex with less effort, or you can flex further and sync up better.

Balanced openness may never become second nature. But you can recognize which openness style feels like home to you, and be better prepared to flex here to sync up better.

The closing section provides direct guidance on how to use social styles observation and social styles sync for active listening:

  • When you’re observing someone, what are characteristic combinations of their observable actions?
    What do you see?

  • When you’re then syncing up to communicate better with him, what are characteristic combinations of your sync actions?
    What do you do?

Reflective listening requires watching the observables, and getting in sync

Your objective in communication is not merely to express yourself. Your aim is to get your idea across to somebody else.

Style flex provides a way of communicating on the other person’s wavelength without losing your own integrity (the substance of what you say stays the same), or your naturalness (most of your behaviors will be your typical ways of relating).

Observable/sync actions help with active listening

Observable/sync actions

Note:
An employer has no business with a man’s personality. Employment is a specific contract calling for specific performance, and for nothing else. Any attempt by an employer to go beyond this is usurpation. It is immoral as well as illegal intrusion of privacy. It is abuse of power. An employee… owes performance and nothing else.—Peter Drucker [3]


  1. Bolton, Robert, and Dorothy Grover Bolton. Social style/management style: Developing productive work relationships. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn, 1984, p. 15.
  2. Merrill, David W., and Roger H. Reid. Personal styles & effective performance. CRC Press, 1981, pp. 210-216, 53.
  3. Bolton, Robert, and Dorothy Grover Bolton. Social style/management style: Developing productive work relationships. AMACOM Div American Mgmt Assn, 1984, pp. 70, 73-76, 15-16.