Emotions in reflective listening

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 12) 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.


We have thoughts in our minds and sensations in our bodies and a combination of these two produces what we call emotions or feelings. Usually it is a thought that triggers an emotion although we need not necessarily be aware of the thought.

Repressing our feelings

Repressing our feelings has several undesirable effects. Firstly, not releasing our emotions means that they are stored inside our bodies and cause tension which builds up into aches and pains and can even lead to serious illnesses in later life.

Secondly, it takes energy and hard work to keep emotions buried, energy that is needed in order to live our lives fully NOW. We have all experienced at some time the sluggishness that goes with depression or feeling bad and, conversely, the release of energy and good feeling when we have finally blown up and got something off our chest.


Thirdly, we can build up an enormous amount of fear about the repressed emotion, believing that if we ever let it out it will damage either ourselves or other people.

Finally, emotion can be repressed so well that we are not aware of it all. Part of us becomes dead or numb-a part that we need in order to be fully human.

Any emotion can be repressed sexual feelings, anger, confidence, loneliness. In some societies, even feelings of love and compassion towards others are often not allowed expression.

To function fully and well we need to be in balance, neither too much in our heads, thinking all the time, nor overwhelmed constantly by our feelings or the repression of them.

The use of rational informed creative thought and emotional intelligence (the constructive use and expression of our emotions) enables us to become self-actualised-centred, aware, and living fully-the condition which American psychologist Abraham Maslow described as the pinnacle of human existence. (See Maslow’s pyramid mentioned in the earlier blogs re ‘Whose needs’)


Reflecting emotions

We have talked about paraphrasing, the method of reflecting a person’s words. Now we are going to look at ways of reflecting feelings, which are often nothing to do with the words that are being spoken.

Because we live in a society that does not readily accept the free expression of emotion, we often try hard to mask our feelings from each other…


We may speak confidently even when really we are fearful or we may carry on a seemingly normal conversation even when we are deeply upset. But these attempts at masking are rarely completely successful because we usually display our emotional state, whether we intend to or not, through all kinds of non-verbal behaviour. So this is where we now have to concentrate our attention.


Most of us have a sensitivity to emotions, to a greater or lesser degree. When we were small we sensed, for instance, whether our parents were angry or anxious. We know instinctively when not to approach someone. We notice when there is an “atmosphere” which makes us uncomfortable. Learning to reflect feelings is about developing this emotional sensitivity a bit more.

We do this by focusing our attention on how messages are being sent rather than on their verbal content. There are four main areas to look at:

  1. Listen for the use of “feeling” words by the speaker.

If the speaker is using words that truly express their feelings, then you feed them back, just as you did with paraphrasing. For example:

“You enjoyed your night out but you felt lonely when you had to go home alone.”

However, sometimes people express their feelings in words that, on the surface, mean the opposite of what they are intending to say. you understand their true meaning from the way they speak.

For example:

“Oh yes, I had a lovely time last night,” said in a sarcastic manner, means just the opposite of what it says. So in this case you pick up the underlying feelings and reflect those:

“You didn’t enjoy yourself when you went out.”

  1. Focus on body language and non-verbal behaviour.

This involves being aware of facial expression, body posture, tone of voice, bodily movements and gestures and also developing a sense of how strongly or otherwise they feel from the level of their energy.

It is these things that will tell you most clearly what a person is feeling and what you pick up from them may be completely at odds with what the speaker is actually saying.

“I really did enjoy going to the school party.” If this is said with conviction but also with a definite shake of the head, it would tell us that though part of the child enjoyed it, there was a part that didn’t.

The speaker may or may not be aware of a discrepancy between their words and behaviour. When you reflect back the feelings you have become aware of, you put them in touch with the feeling side of themselves. They are likely to feel more comfortable because you have understood and be encouraged to carry on talking. For example:

“So, most of you had a good time and there is a part of you that didn’t.”

  1. Problem described factually

Many people do not use feeling words at all and describe their problem in a very factual way. In these instances it is often possible to infer feelings from the overall content of what they are saying. For example:

“As soon as I went out it started to rain, then the bus was late and, when I finally got there, they didn’t have any left, then, to cap it all I had my purse stolen!”

At no point does the speaker mention how they feel but we can pick up the likely feelings from what has been said, even just from reading it on this page. One response might be:

“Sounds like you had a dreadful time!”

  1. Use own feelings and imagination to understand

You can use yourself, your own feelings and your ability to imagine how you would feel in a similar situation. At best, of course, this can only be guesswork, although people do have similar feelings in difficult situations. Reflecting the feelings that you guess someone is experiencing will soon give you an idea of whether you are right or not. If you are not, the speaker will probably say so and tell you why.

Some more guidelines

  • Say when you don’t understand and ask the other person to make it clear for you.
  • Avoid telling people that you know how they feel; you cannot know, only guess.
  • Focus on the feelings and choose accurate feeling words.

Being able to find the word that accurately reflects the speaker’s experience is very helpful to them. Where feelings are concerned this can be quite difficult. Our society does not value feelings and few people talk openly about their feelings, so it is easy to be at a loss for words to describe them. 

Giving feedback

As you start to practise these new skills, you might like to give some thought to how others can help you and you can help other people put these skills to best use. Being given and giving feedback is the most practical way to learn.  Use the following guide-lines when asking anyone to help you develop your skills.


  • Feedback means giving back to a person your own perceptions about what that person has just done or said.
  • Feedback enables a person to check out whether what they think they are doing and saying comes over as they expect to others.
  • Some of our behaviour is outside our own awareness but can be noticed by others. Feedback helps raise our awareness of this unconscious behaviour which in turn enables us to communicate more congruently.
  • Accurate feedback helps us understand ourselves and so continue to grow.


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: sue@suewashington.co

Peace of Mind Training, 145 Chapel Lane,
Preston, Lancashire, PR4 5NA,

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