Reflective Listening 1 – getting upset

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 11) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

What happens when we get upset

Getting upset is common.  We all get upset now and again. Sometimes the upset isn’t very strong and doesn’t interfere with whatever we are doing at the time. Sometimes the upset is much greater and the strength of the feelings gets in the way of our being able to think straight or get on with everyday tasks. At these times, our feelings have flooded out our thinking minds and we need quite urgently to unflood ourselves before we can carry on.


Reflective listening

Reflective listening—also sometimes known as “active listening” is about the best way we know for helping people deal with upsets, unflood those feelings, sort out the confusions and work out the solutions to their day to day worries and difficulties. Reflective listening is a mixture of skills that include silence and good attention as well as three more active ingredients:-

a) paraphrasing

This is a way of helping someone get clearer about what they are thinking and feeling by listening to what they are saying and then repeating to them the gist of the content in a short and simple “paraphrase” using your own words.

b) reflecting feelings

It is often difficult to get clear about thoughts if feelings are getting in the way, so as you listen it is particularly helpful to pick out the feeling words and underlying unstated feelings and reflect these back to the speaker. This helps them become more aware of what is happening inside them and allows them to let go of those feelings and become unflooded.

c) reflecting hidden meanings

In combining paraphrasing and reflecting the feelings it is often possible for the listener to get a sense of what the speaker is meaning even if they can’t get it for themselves. Offering your sense of things to them may well help them to make the connections they need to be able to help themselves.

The value of expressing feelings

In the world in which we live, thoughts and deeds are valued much more than feelings. We train children to think clearly often whilst also training them not to express their feelings. However, bottled up feelings have to go somewhere; they may either explode periodically in dangerous ways, in the home, at work or on the streets; or they may become locked into our bodies and cause anything from minor aches and pains to migraines, ulcers or serious medical conditions. Helping people learn to express their feelings safely and considerately is one of the most useful things you can do.

As we let our feelings out we can experience a great sense of relief, like a heavy weight removed from our shoulders. Not only will we feel lighter, calmer and happier, other people will experience us that way too. Having let go of the unexpressed feelings, we will be more ready to face the world around us, the people in our lives and the tasks we have to do.



Sometimes I need to see my reflection in another person in order to  remember who I really am.


 Reflective listening

Reflective listening is the skill of mirroring back to a person, in your own words and manner, what that person is saying to you.

Reflective listening allows the speaker to hear what they are saying, see what they are meaning and feel what is happening, and through this process, come to a better understanding of themselves and their situation.

At its simplest level, it is a process of listening with full attention that includes repeating back a shortened version of what the speaker says—known as paraphrasing.

The time when most of us use this skill already is when we are being given directions to get somewhere. We take in the information, then say it back to the giver to check whether we have got it right. We are converting what has been said into our own words to make sure of our own understanding.

With reflective listening you are doing just the same thing but with the emphasis is on helping the other person to get clear about what is going on for them.

Paraphrasing what the other has said also goes a long way towards preventing misunderstandings—we often think or feel that we understand what a person has said but this is just guesswork, unless we check our understanding out with the speaker.

When your words mirror clearly what is being said you will get a “yes” response from the speaker, verbally or non-verbally. When your paraphrase misses the mark the speaker naturally corrects it. In this way, an inaccurate paraphrase will be far more use than a question or reassuring statement.

Paraphrasing deals mainly with the content of the message you are receiving; the words, facts and information. You feed back, in your own wordsthe essence of what the other person is saying to you in a short form. The paraphrase should be simple and to the point and actively reflect only the important points of the other’s message. Using too many words can completely distract the speaker from what they are saying. Using your own words when you do this is very important.


“I can never tell you `what you said’, but only `what I heard’.   I will have to rephrase what you said, and check it out with you to make sure that what left your mind and heart arrived in my mind and heart intact and without distortion.”                          

 John Powel 


Just repeating the exact words like a parrot can srop the conversation completely.  Using your own words convey to the speaker that you have really listened and understood and it helps you to know that you understand.

In summary:

  • Reflect the content of message.
  • Be short and to the point.
  • Reflect only the essentials of the message.
  • Use your own words.

 Key phrases

When we start to use reflective listening it is all too easy to use the same sets of words all the time. We then end up sounding rather boring and the people we are trying to help may switch off. Below you will find a selection of phrases other people have found useful at different moments in the reflective listening process.

We call these phrases “lead-ins”, and they are important because they tell the other person that our paraphrase is what we guess or think they are saying rather than an attempt to lay down the law.

So, for example, where the statement “you’re feeling upset” might produce resentment or irritation, the more tentative statement “I have a sense that you’re feeling upset” or “I think that …” invites agreement or disagreement, and allows the communication to move to the next stage.

As you practise this kind of listening, you will develop your own approach that feels natural to you. Maybe you will find that you can convey an open-ended tentative approach without having to use these sorts of lead-ins at all.




How reflective listening helps the speaker

When you listen reflectively you are checking with the speaker that you really heard what they meant to say. This stops you from getting their messages wrong, gives the speaker a feeling of safety because they know they have been understood and allows the conversation to flow more freely, which helps them explore their problem.

They can then get to the problem that is really bothering them, which is rarely the same as the one that they start talking about.

People in the helping professions are trained to look beneath what is called the “presenting” problem that a person comes to them with. We don’t usually start talking about our deepest worries immediately; we “test the water” first or “sound someone out” before we start to reveal ourselves fully to them.

Reflective listening, done with care and compassion, helps people through these initial stages. It also stops you, the listener, from trying to solve the minor problem the speaker is  talking  about  first.  If you were  to  do  that,  they  would  have  no  chance to explore what it is that is really bothering them.


Children, in particular, often make only indirect attempts to get their deeper needs met. They want a drink at bedtime, they want something to eat just after lunch, etc. If we meet these surface needs all the time the child never gets what they were really wanting. You may wonder why they don’t just come out with the real problem. Yet think of the number of times you have felt off-colour or fed up and not really known why. Reflective listening to your child’s concerns can prevent this from happening.

Reflective listening can help people in two important ways. Firstly, it can make it easier for some people who are not really aware of their feelings, or what is going on inside them emotionally, to get back in touch with their feelings again. Just doing this often adds the missing piece they needed in order to begin to solve their problem.

Secondly, when a person is overwhelmed by feelings, reflective listening lets them know that it is all right to have those emotions and gives them the chance to express them fully. Expressing the emotions has the effect of releasing the pent-up energy and drains off the emotion, after which the person generally feels a great deal better.

Reflective listening helps people feel strong and in control of their lives because it acknowledges what they are experiencing and thus who they are. Too often in our world we are told by others what we are doing, feeling and thinking. Reflective listening gives us a chance to see, hear and feel ourselves for ourselves — it puts us back in touch with who we really are!


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Asking questions

Let me know if you have any questions!  Talking about questions, there is a lot below on this!! The material in this series of 22 (of which this is number 10) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Asking questions

It isn’t always easy to talk about our feelings, worries or problems. In particular it can be difficult to get started. If you think that someone has something on their mind that you could help them with, a good way to start is letting them know that you have the time to listen and are prepared to give them the time and attention that they may need.  As nice as it is to be able to help, there are times when you may well have more important things to do or to think about. It is more useful not to offer to listen than to offer and then not listen, giving all those little unconscious messages that show you would rather really be somewhere else.

‘But what,’ you might wonder, `if they dry up and don’t seem to know what to say?’

It is a natural response, in this situation, to feel that you want ask questions. After all, asking questions helps the flow of conversation.

Question may well be appropriate at such a time – however, there are useful and not so useful questions to use.

Questions can be either closed questions or open ended questions.

By asking open-ended question rather than closed, directive ones, you are firmly leaving the responsibility for the feeling or the problem with the other person, rather than trying to solve it for them.  Your open-ended questions, coupled with an accepting and attentive attitude, convey your genuine interest in helping them without taking over or prying into things they may like to work through on their own.


Here are some of the less useful reasons questions are usually asked:

1     To fill in silences that the listener finds uncomfortable.

2     To confirm something the questioner is thinking.

3     To veil some emotion or need of the questioner, e.g. `Why are you doing that?’ instead of `I don’t want you

to do that.’

4     To satisfy the questioner’s own curiosity or need to know.

These reasons usually conceal a statement that the person isn’t willing to state out loud, or may not be aware of.

Look for the statement underlying your question. It is usually better to make a statement (`I want some peace!’) than to phrase it as a question. (`Do you have to make so much noise?’)

Emotional Flooding

There is another good reason fore not asking closed questions of someone who is experiencing a problem and is emotionally upset. when we are upset, our emotions tend ot take over the thinking part of our makeup. The more upset we are, the more difficult it is to think straight. When we are upset we are emotionally flooded.   Closed questions, or questions that demand specific information in answer, address just that thinking side of the mind which is being flooded out by emotions.  The result is either that the emotional temperature can rise as the upset person struggles to find the answer and/or they are taken off track form the real issues by trying to answer well-intentioned but irrelevant questions.

It can be a painful realisation for well-meaning people to discover that their best efforts to help are only making matters worse.


Learning from past experience

Young children don’t make mistakes or fail at things – they do something, then do it again and again, finding new ways if the old ones don’t work, until they have got it how they want it.

This is how the learn to crawl, sit up, walk, talk and achieve many of their early skills.

Children learn about failure. They learn because of the expectations placed on them by adults, and sometimes by older children, and the negative messages that get when they don’t meet up to those expectations. As they get older they may start to have unrealistic expectations of themselves, wanting to do things that their bodies or minds can’t achieve.

Our society is very goal and achievement-oriented and there is not much emphasis placed on enjoyment while getting there. We want to `be it’ or `have it’ now.

It is easy to love perfection and the way things should be. The real test is to feel comfortable and content with the way it is right now. It is the obstacles I meet that allow me to expand, to stretch my `lovingness’ to include even that.

When we make mistakes and feel we have failed, we quite often get completely side-tracked and use up energy feeling guilty or trying to correct the mistake. If we do get side-tracked in this way we are no longer on our path, unable to go to the next place that we want to be. Many people spend a great deal of time `lost’ in this sort of way.

If we remove the negative emotional attitudes that we have towards our failures and mistakes, we can free a great deal of energy. This we can then use to look constructively at what happened and gather information that can help us change what we do in the future.

If we allow ourselves the freedom, we can learn much of great value from where, how and when we went astray.

Fear of failure

If we learned that it was not all right to fail, this attitude can have a profound effect on what we allow ourselves to do in the future. Fear of failure can prevent us from even trying to get our needs met or attempting new things, thus severely limiting us as human beings.

In our education system, where only one person can come `top’ it is very hard for children not to pick up negative attitudes and feelings about `getting things wrong’.  If you were told that you had to take an exam at the end of this  course (which you don’t!) most of you would feel some level of anxiety about it. The learning process would be changed for you and probably not in a very constructive way.

Children do not need to be taught how to learn, develop and explore the world – they are born with these abilities.  The concept of failure however, is one that is learned, and one that affects us all through our lives.


What might stop us listening?

For most of us, real attentive listening is a skill we have to learn and practice.  The reality is that we may fumble along at it, jump in and ask questions, give advice instead of remaining quiet and find listening well very difficult.  The old habits die hard.  Many  people have not had much experience of listening or being listened  to  and so  have not had opportunity to learn the skill.


We have all had plenty of experience of not being listened to.  At times, even those we are lisening to will contribute to how hard we find it.

‘Please just tell me what to do’ is a common plea, and not just  from young children …


Go easy on yourself

Are you prepared to go easy on yourself and learn these new skills bit by bit without worrying that you are not doing it right?

It is useful to remember that we are all doing the best we know how at any particular moment. The fact that you have begun to learn a new way does not take away from the fact that when you are at home in your normal situation you react in the way you `know’ in that situation. It is OK to be a good enough listener bit by bit remembering to try things differently and learning from the nice and not so nice examples you experience.


Deception of familiarity

We tend to think that we know the people we spend a great deal of time with, very well – our colleagues, partners, children, etc.  This maybe true, but quite often, when we think we know someone well, we stop updating our information about them, and forget that people are constantly developing and changing.

Take some time to stand back a little and really notice that adults and children you spend a lot of your time with.  Look at them as if you were seeing them for the first time….


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Introduction to listening

When we are growing up, nobody teaches us how to listen!  This is a fundamental of life – and the next few blogs will show you how …

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 9) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which we are most grateful.

Silence is not enough

As powerful as silent listening is, there are many occasions when we could be more active in our listening. Even simple, factual communications can be coloured by underlying emotion,  and to receive the full communication it  is useful to listen not only to the words, but to acknowledge the feelings that are being expressed.  Upset people don’t send clear messages, there are usually too many unpleasant and strong feelings around.

Letting people know you are aware of their feelings not only clarifies communication, but also helps both parties acknowledge and deal with relevant issues. Just giving a name to what you think they feel can be enough.

Open ended questions

Open ended questions leave the person you are listening to with the responsibility as to what they tell you and how the conversation goes.  Unlike a closed question they do not suggest an answer, for example:  “What aspect of your job bothers you?”  rather than  “Are you unhappy with your salary?”

Open ended questions fall into two categories:

1. Door openers, to start the ball rolling

It is not easy for some people to express the way they feel, especially if they perceive their feelings as    negative.  At these times it is useful to encourage them to start talking with open ended questions like:

“Do you want to talk about anything?”   “You seem a bit out of sorts, do you want to tell me about it?”

2. Questions to keep the flow going

Though pauses and silence is valuable in a conversation, sometimes it is useful keep people going with more open ended questions:

“Is there anything more?”  “Is there something else worrying you?”


Learning from our successes and mistakes

Children learning to walk try different ways of getting up and launching themselves on two feet, each time learning from what they do to be more successful at the next attempt. Unlike adults, they do not beat themselves up for making mistakes, but learn from experience, responding to the “feedback” that the experience offers them. We can learn to do likewise, considering what we do and the effect it has on us and others and using the feedback from other people and the environment to change things the next time.

What might get in the way of listening

Learning to really listen isn’t always easy. There are all sorts of patterns that can get in the way. However much we may want to be helpful in these new ways, we may be stuck in old patterns of trying to sort things out for others, and solve their problems for them.

We may also find that feelings expressed to us trigger us into our own, often unfruitful ways of responding, and the situation becomes about us, rather than about the other person, or the problem to be solved.

Obviously we want to do it all as well as we can, and it will take time to replace the old patterns of behaving with new ones.  Only doing it and leaning from the feedback we get both at work and at home can  speed the process up.


Taking listening a step further

Sometimes silence and the best attentive behaviour in the world are not quite enough. Some situations need something more. At these times we can use very simple responses so that the speaker knows we are still with them.  In this way we encourage the speaker to continue talking and don’t interrupt the flow.

Examples: –    … mm-hum …      go on …    yes  …         really?   …         oh    …     and?…

Repeating key words from the speaker’s last sentence may also be used as a way of encouraging someone to continue. For example:

  • Speaker:        `I don’t know what’s happening, I just feel stuck.’
  • Listener:         `Stuck.’

The listener’s body language, tone of voice and facial expression can also act as encouragement.

The aim of these responses is not to interrupt the person or agree or disagree with them but just to let them know that you hear what they are saying.

Of course, we have all experienced inattentive listeners who repeat the same words and sounds, trying to mask that they are not listening at all and maybe not even caring about what we are saying. So make sure you are feeling accepting and understanding when you use these simple forms of acknowledgement.

Remaining silent is a very powerful way of giving people the space and safety to talk through their fears, worries, upsets and difficulties. If we can give our attention in a caring, accepting and supportive way, then we are halfway towards being as helpful as it is possible to be.



In wanting to do more to help it is easy to forget the value of trusting the other person to be able to work through whatever they need to deal with, with our help. We leave the responsibility for dealing with feelings, solving the problem, or calming the worry with the person who is experiencing the feeling, problem or worry.

In this way, not only do we play our part in making sure that they do what is best for them, we are also helping them to learn how to do it in the future when we are not around to help. Particularly with our children this is a very important step we can help them take in their growing up – but it applies equally in any situation where a person is learning a new skill or assuming a new set of responsibilities.

As we said in the introduction, people who are upset do not send straight messages…


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at:

Helping: Being Congruent

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 8) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Quite often we are not congruent. For example, we may feel angry in our  minds and bodies but try not to show it. This is called a mixed message and these can cause confusion in other people because they can sense that something isn’t “straight”. Children are especially sensitive to mixed messages and may behave in negative ways when they are receiving them from you because they cannot cope with the confusion they are experiencing.

We can be incongruent in three ways:

1. At the awareness level

We can experience thoughts and feelings without being aware of them. This means that others can sense that we are angry, hurt or upset but we don’t know it ourselves. When someone confronts us with how we are feeling we deny it and may even become defensive about it. Hence the red-faced person loudly shouting “I am not angry!”


In these instances the person is genuinely unaware of what they are experiencing and they may need help and support in order to “get in touch” with their feelings.

2. At the communication level

In these instances a person is aware of what they are experiencing but for some reason they are choosing not to express it to others. This includes being “polite” to someone you may not like and, also, not telling someone how you really feel because it may “hurt” them.

The choice not to express what you are feeling may be conscious or unconscious. We often learn as children that it is not safe to talk openly about what we experience and we bring this lesson with us into adult life. For instance, the little boy who is told it isn’t manly to cry may grow up into a man who suppresses any display of emotion. People who learn that it isn’t safe to be honest about their feelings very often keep their opinions of things to themselves, even when it would be valuable for them to express them.

3. Internal congruence

We can also experience a lack of congruence if what we believe is right is at odds with what we are actually able to do. For example, a modern mother may “believe” in breast feeding on demand. But perhaps she doesn’t have enough milk or she becomes too exhausted because she has other small children to take care of too. She becomes more and more tired, irritable and run down. Her beliefs are at odds with what she is physically capable of doing.

In instances like these, the belief needs changing and there needs to be far more trust put into what “feels” right rather than what is “thought” to be right.

What is right for a person makes them feel happy, doesn’t exhaust them, feels good, and works!

If you don’t feel happy and comfortable with what you are doing, then it isn’t right for you, whatever anyone tells you. Take time to find out what feels right! If you are happy, you will have so much more energy to live your life creatively.


Communication is the process by which messages are sent from one person to another via our senses. In our society there is a great deal of emphasis placed on words but studies have shown that often the words are the least important part of the communication.

Actions speak louder than words

If we take away the word content of communication we are left with tone of voice, which includes pitch, rhythm, volume, etc. and body language, which includes facial expression, gestures, body movement, posture and breathing.

It’s not what we say but how we say it, as the old saying goes.

Spend some time just watching people, making sure that you can’t hear what they are saying, and see just how much you can pick up from their non-verbal behaviour.

One interesting way to do this is to turn the sound down on the television and watch the picture alone. It is often quite easy to follow what is happening in the programme without sounds.

Most of us pick up the non-verbal aspect of communication unconsciously as we go along and only really become aware of it when there is a very obvious discrepancy between what is being said and the way in which it is said.

These discrepancies arise when we are not being congruent; on some level we are sending a mixed message that the receiver is unclear about, e.g. saying yes or no when we really don’t want to, or when we are trying to hide our true thoughts and feelings.


Using the child as a guide


We all have some ability to sense when people are not being straightforward or completely honest with us. Our response, when this happens, can range from feeling slightly uncomfortable to believing that we are being lied to. Whatever the response there is likely to be a feeling of confusion and a lack of understanding of what is going on.

Young children are very sharp at picking up mixed messages from what we say and do. This makes them ill at ease and that is likely to be reflected in their behaviour.

For instance:

Bob is concentrating on producing some complex statistics for his MD, and people keep popping into his office for trivial reasons.  At first he is patient and polite, but as time passes and he makes little progress on his task due to interruptions, he starts to get harassed.  Finally he blows up at the next unfortunate who pops their head around the door.  Word gets round the office – “leave Bob alone!” and he is able to finish his task in peace.

In an effort to be Mr. Nice Guy, Bob sent out mixed messages, until his internal stress reached critical levels, and he erupted.  After that everyone knew what it was he wanted and was happy to give it to him.


Often children force us to be straight and honest by their simple innocence and directness.  This quality of innocence is important in helping us remain straight with ourselves.  Observe young children and get a sense of where they’re coming from and apply this to your own life.

If you don’t have children in your life, try to harness the innocence and directness that is still part of the child within you – the child that you once were.  Pay attention to that little voice inside – it is often more honest than we allow ourselves to be, and can help us become more congruent, more `real’ in our daily lives.

If you don’t have children in your life, try to harness the innocence and directness that is still part of the child within you – the child that you once were.  Pay attention to that little voice inside – it is often more honest than we allow ourselves to be, and can help us become more congruent, more `real’ in our daily lives.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”.  Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at: