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!

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