When not to reflectively listen!

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.

When not to reflective listen

It is useful to work out when not to reflectively listen.  Helping someone with an upset can take time. If you are too busy or have needs or worries of your own to attend to, suggest some other time or other person to do the listening.  If you are involved in the upset or problem you may not be the best person to help sort it out.

Listening to yourself

Most people are aware of having different parts of themselves—or inner voices representing the different ways they feel about things. It is possible to develop a part or voice that will reflective listen to all the other parts when we are feeling upset or in confusion. We can help ourselves by listening inside our heads or even in front of a mirror.


Communications barriers

Many old patterns and beliefs get in the way of listening to others. As children we learnt to switch off at times, to doubt and judge others, and to spend most of our listening time working out what we were going to say when it is our turn to speak. All these things stemmed from not having been listened to in our turn, and can get in the way now as we try to listen reflectively to others.

Unhelpful responses

With the best will in the world we may set out to help people with a problem and either have no effect or make it worse. Common unhelpful responses include reassuring, taking their minds off it, denying the feelings, sharing our own problems to divert them from theirs, or simply giving “good advice”. We all use responses like these at times, having learnt them as children from our parents, teachers and other adults. Feeling guilty or blameful towards ourselves or others is in itself an unhelpful response. We can all learn to react in other more useful ways in future.

More about reflective listening

So far, we have considered reflecting content and reflecting feelings. When we put this all together we have true reflective listening. It isn’t easy to become a good listener, so it might be useful here to recap and expand some of our suggestions.


Remember what we have said about not coming across as dogmatic and interpretive. To avoid this, we suggest using simple “lead-in” phrases that offer your reflective response more tentatively.

For example:

I sense that… you feel angry because the parcel was late and you can’t get your mother’s present to her on time.”


“I expect… you feel upset and hurt because he didn’t call you.”

This format is just to help you at the beginning: there is no need to stick to the same words each time.  You could, for instance, just as easily say: “I sense you are upset” rather than “I sense you feel upset”.

Words like “since”, “about” and “that” can be used instead of “because”.

Finding your own way of doing it is obviously more effective because it is “real” for you. Try different methods and pick the one you feel most at home with.

The most useful responses are the shortest ones, ones that include all you want to reflect in the smallest number of words. This way the speaker’s  conversation is not unduly interrupted but they know that you are “with them”.

Some examples:

statement –    “He had a go at me in front of the whole office!”

response –     “You must have felt awful.”


statement –    “I can’t read his writing, and he wants this typed up for the meeting this afternoon.”

response –     “How frustrating for you.”


statement –    “They just seem to keep on piling work onto me – now I have to produce the performance statistic as well!”

response –     “You sound as if you’re not sure you can cope with it all.”

It isn’t useful to pretend that you understand what someone is saying or feeling. It is O.K if you don’t understand – say so – and ask them to explain some more. Avoid telling people that you know what they are thinking or that you know just how they feel. Many people doubt, quite rightly, that others can know these things, so saying you do can distance you from them. It is far better to demonstrate your understanding with empathetic responses rather than tell them you know.

Vary your responses. These can range from silence, body movements like a nod of the head, and minor encouragements like the repetition of an important word through to reflecting in your own words the content, feeling or meaning of what they are saying. Like learning to drive a car, you will probably start out feeling a bit awkward with your new skills, yet with practice, they become second nature.

Be aware of your tone of voice. Our voices can reflect very clearly how we are feeling without us being aware of it—think about how you talk to someone that you want to get rid of, and then think about what your voice sounds like when you are talking to someone you love and want to get close to. When reflective listening, use the tone of your voice as a tool. Make sure it is appropriate to the situation.

Be patient. You may spend a long time listening to someone and yet they still go away seeming not to have found their solution. This is absolutely nothing to worry about. They may mull over what was said and discover something new and useful for themselves or they may need lots more listening time before they begin to find their way out of whatever it is that is troubling them. For others, just being able to talk freely may be the solution. Being heard and understood can in itself give people the very thing that they were looking for—deep caring contact with another human being.

Reflective listening is a wonderful skill for helping others but if there is no reason to use it, don’t. Like everything else, it can be overdone and flogged to death. Using it all the time will drain your energy and drive your family and friends mad. If you get comments like: “She’s off again!” or “Why don’t you talk properly to me any more”, then the chances are you are overdoing it.

More about when not to reflective listen

Probably the most important time to be wary of using it is when you need to take care of yourself and don’t have the energy and inclination to concentrate on another’s problems. If you continue to try and help others when you haven’t met your own needs you will become drained and the quality of the help that you are giving will be low.  It is in everyone’s interests that you look after yourself!

We suggest you avoid using reflective listening when you feel unaccepting of the other person. If your own negative thoughts and feelings keep intruding, the other person is likely to pick that up and you will not come across as helpful. Be congruent in your thoughts and feelings about wanting to be there for the other person. It isn’t useful to pretend to be accepting because you think you “ought” to help; you have the right not to help if you don’t want to.

Too close for comfort

Another time when reflective listening will probably not be useful is when you are too involved in the problem. Here your thoughts and feelings get caught up in the problem in the same way as for the speaker. This is most likely to happen with people who are very close to you and who have a problem that involves you, making it difficult for you to set aside your feelings while you help them.

For example:

You have had a lot of input in a presentation that a colleague had to make.  When the colleague returns from the meeting looking upset because the presentation was not well received, you will probably feel as defensive or as let down as your colleague, and would be unable to help your colleague deal with the way they felt.

Using the idea of “who owns the problem?” can be helpful here. If it is you, it is not an appropriate time for you to be trying to listen to them. In this situation, it may be enough to share your feelings, so that you can create some space in you to listen; or you may have to say that you are not feeling able to help right now because you are too upset and arrange a time to help later.

It is possible that you will always be so upset about a particular problem that you will not be able to help later either. In this case, it might be useful for you to find someone else to listen to the person with the problem.

There may be times when you are too rushed or busy to be able to listen attentively to someone else’s upsets. Tell them this and then you can avoid undue hurt feelings by making a time to get together later on.

Finally, be wary of using reflective listening when all you are being asked for is information.

More about Listening to yourself

You have learned a great deal about how to listen to others effectively. You can use these same skills to listen to yourself when you are upset or have a problem. There are quite a number of skills and techniques that you can use to overcome the fact that there is only one of you! They all require that you keep part of yourself detached from the problem you are having.

1 Reflective listening to yourself

Listen reflectively to your own inner voice to find out what is going on inside you. What are the thoughts and feelings you are having? Allow yourself to air them fully and listen to what you are saying with the same care and respect you would give to another person you were helping.

2 Gestalt therapy technique

In Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, there is a technique in which you use cushions or chairs to represent the parts of you that are having problems. For example, if you were having a problem with your body you would have two cushions, one for you and one to represent your body. You would then have a conversation with your body. When you were speaking you would sit on your cushion and when your body was speaking you would sit on the cushion that represents your body.

In both places you use the first person when you are talking, i.e.: You – “I don’t understand why you are so painful all the time?”  Switch to body cushion  “I’m fed up, you never look after me properly and you just forget that I exist most of the time.”  You continue until you feel you want to stop.      This technique requires that you let go as much as you can and trust that things will come up that will let you know more about what is happening inside yourself. You may, in the process, bring to the surface many different parts of yourself, in which case you use a different cushion for each one.

3 Top-dog/Under-dog

Fritz Perls also noticed that most of us have two distinct types of voices in our heads that surface time and time again. One he labelled Top-dog; this voice is loud and bossy and always telling you what you should, must or ought to do. The other he labelled Under-dog and this voice is weak and unable to stand up for itself. These two voices continually war with each other whereas it would be better all round if we could get them to understand each other more and get closer together –  just like reconciling two fighting children.

Top-dog needs to learn to be more understanding and accepting, avoiding using labels and blame. Under-dog needs to learn to stand up for itself and be more assertive. Play out both roles as they apply to yourself and use the detached part of yourself to mediate between them.

4 Inner family

Most people recognise that they are made up of differing parts or aspects. It is almost like having an internal family. All these parts have needs (perhaps one part wants challenge and another part wants comfort) and, if these needs aren’t met, they will act up just like members of a real family do.


 Use your detached part to help identify them and get their needs met. Quite often it is only one or two parts which cause you real problems. These are the ones that feel you never meet their needs, which are usually to do with needing love, rest or fun.

5 Higher self or guardian

Some people develop a part of themselves who acts as an all-wise, all-knowing being who can be called on at times of trouble to give help and support. We all have an older and wiser part inside ourselves, one that understands us and knows what we need to be doing. We may recognise this being as ourself or the part may be seen as a person completely separate from ourselves. In whatever way this part is imagined it can be a very powerful ally to contact when your reserves are low.

6 Listen with your body

Our bodies continually send us messages which we don’t listen to until they get so loud that we become ill. When we get tired a lot or constantly have headaches, for instance, our bodies are telling us that we are putting ourselves under too much strain. Usually it is mental or emotional stress that causes these kinds of symptoms. What is happening in your body is a barometer for what is happening in your mind. Your body needs loving and caring for in just the same way as a young child does. It isn’t just a machine that gets you about. Listen to its needs, for they are your own…


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

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *