Reflective Listening

If you are a parent having difficulty communicating with your teen, many therapeutic techniques can be useful. One of the simplest and most effective is Reflective Listening.

The key points of Reflective Listening are in the name itself. The goal is to sincerely listen and then reflect on what you have heard.

At the heart of reflective listening is the idea that you need to first seek to understand before seeking to be understood. This simple principle can have a profound effect on communication.

By focusing on improving your own understanding you decrease the chance that your teen may feel the need to act out. You will also improve your own understanding of the challenges your teen is facing, and increase the likelihood that your teen will be ready to listen to you in return.

To be a good listener, you not only need to understand more than just the content of what is being said. You also need to understand the meaning behind the words and the feelings being expressed. This article will describe techniques to help you do just that.

Wilderness Therapy Therapist healing a teen

What Is Reflective Listening?

When you practice Reflective Listening, you are helping someone else to better understand their own thoughts and feelings. You achieve this by expressing your understanding of their thoughts and feelings, then checking for confirmation. This does not mean that you are introducing your own ideas or leading the conversation. There are two main parts to Reflective Listing. The first step is simply to listen. The second step is to reflect on what you have heard by putting the speaker’s ideas into your own words. In the process of reflection, you can ask clarifying questions of the speaker as well as consider your own motivations and the impact that they have on the conversation.

Question to Ask Yourself

When people are trying to communicate, it can be very easy to make assumptions about what the speaker wants. However, these assumptions may simply not match what the speaker actually wants, needs, or is requesting. That is why both listening and reflection are important. There are different kinds of questions that you can ask yourself that will help to focus your ability to listen. The first type of question that you can ask relates to one main question: Why am I listening?

Getting a better understanding of why you are trying to listen in the first place can make you a more effective listener. Some related questions that you can ask yourself are:

  • Do I have my own story about what is happening?
  • Am I only listening to confirm my own version of what is happening?
  • Am I just waiting for my turn to talk?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you are not practicing Reflective Listening. To be a good listener, you need to be listening with the intention of helping yourself better understand the situation.

You may also ask yourself, How am I listening?

Key questions related to this topic are:

  • Are there things that are distracting me like my phone or my computer?
  • How much of my attention does the speaker really have?

Your nonverbal communication, such as how attentive you are, is as important to any conversation as your words. Often, nonverbal communication can matter more than words. Pay attention to it. The last aspect of self-questioning to consider relates to the overall question, What am I listening to?

Questions you can ask yourself that relate to this topic are:

  • Am I hearing the whole message that the speaker is trying to convey?
  • Am I only focusing on certain elements of the message that cause me the biggest emotional response?
  • Am I listening to the implied message?

Listening to the implied message means not only listening to what the speaker is saying explicitly but also considering other ideas that the speaker is hinting at using words, tone, or body language. After you ask yourself these questions, you will likely have a better understanding of what the speaker is trying to say. Then you can check your understanding by asking the speaker questions.

Questions to Ask Someone Else

In addition to genuinely helping you to understand the situation, the simple act of asking questions shows the other person that you care about what the person has to say. By asking questions you are being attentive to their needs and you are doing your best to understand.

You may also be helping the speaker clarify for themselves things that they had not yet even considered. You are allowing them to listen to their own ideas and consider their own feelings. By doing this, you are helping them understand themselves better.

When you are ready to ask questions of the person speaking, do your best to ask questions that reflect your understanding of the most important things that the speaker is trying to say.

That is, you want to reflect ideas that the speaker thinks are the most important. When you try to decide what those ideas might be, consider both what the speaker has said and the speaker’s nonverbal behavior.

One way of thinking about doing this is hypothesis testing. Essentially, the questions that you will ask the speaker relate to one main question: Have I understood what you are saying?

As with any other skill, Reflective Listening skills will improve the more they are practiced. When you are first starting out, it is also a good idea to practice Reflective Listening skills in safe situations where people are calm and the stakes are relatively low.

Taking the time to practice Reflective Listening skills before you are in a situation that immediately requires them can help you use these skills all the better when you really need them.

Three Basic Types of Reflections

There are three common ways to show a speaker you are listening attentively.

Repeat or Rephrase

The simplest is to repeat or rephrase what the speaker has said. A more advanced type of reflection is summarizing the speaker’s main points. A relatively more difficult method is to conjecture. When you conjecture you ask for confirmation about your understanding of how the speaker is feeling. In order to simply repeat or rephrase, use synonyms to repeat what you think the speaker is saying.

There are many common phrases you can use to repeat or rephrase. They are:

  • What I hear you saying is… Is that right?
  • It sounds like you…
  • It seems as if…
  • Are you saying…?
  • What I am getting from you is…
  • I get the impression that…

The best phrases to use are the ones that feel most natural to you. You can practice using these phrases in everyday conversations in non-stressful, low-risk situations. That will make the phrases flow more naturally if you have to use them in a stressful, high-risk conversation. When some people first use repeat or rephrase, they feel like they are just parroting the other person. If you feel this way when you use the technique for the first time then that is okay. You can be confident that you can get better with practice.


When you are practicing summarizing, try to focus on the main points that the speaker is trying to get across. Try to understand the situation from their point of view. Focus on what is likely to be important to them.

One struggle that parents often have is that they see the world much differently than their teen does. Teens have a lot less life experience than their parents. They have different priorities. While it is tempting to try to share the benefits of your life experience with your teen, doing so may make them feel unheard and stop listening to you in turn. So, when summarizing, this is not your opportunity to tell them what you think is important or how you feel about what they are saying.


When you conjecture, you do not need to focus exclusively on the words being said. You can also make inferences based on the feelings that the speaker appears to be expressing in their tone or body language.

Focusing on the nonverbal ways that someone communicates can be particularly helpful if the speaker is distressed and not finding the right words. The speaker might not understand their own feelings, let alone how their nonverbal communication is making them appear to other people. Even if you do not understand what the speaker is trying to say in words, you might guide the speaker to a clearer understanding of their own ideas.

To do this, consider what emotions the speaker seems to be expressing. Also, take into account how intense the feelings seem to be. For example, imagine that your teen tells you: I hate going to school because other kids always make fun of me and the teacher never does anything about it. You could reflect back: You feel very hurt by the way the other kids and the teacher are treating you.

The speaker may correct your understanding of how they feel. If they do, that’s great! Correcting you shows they are engaged in trying to communicate with you. It also gives you a better understanding of the situation than you had before.

Keep in mind that it is not just the speaker’s nonverbal communication that matters. When you practice Reflective Listening, consider not only what you are saying but also how you are saying it. Your tone, volume, cadence, and body language will make a big difference in how your messages are perceived.


Learning the principles of Reflective Listening will provide you with tools to help you have difficult conversations.

If you are new to Reflective Listening, it is a good idea to start practicing in calm situations during low-risk situations. By practicing these skills in advance you will be better prepared to use them when you need them.

In the Reflective Listening process, there are questions you want to ask yourself and questions you want to ask others.

The questions that you ask yourself are a way of checking in with yourself to make sure you genuinely are listening.

When you ask the speaker questions, remember that the goal is to check to make sure you understand them correctly. You are not trying to introduce your own feelings or ideas. The goal is to reflect on the speaker’s thoughts and feelings.

The three basic types of reflections are repeat and rephrase, summarizing, and conjecture. Each type of reflection can be useful when you are first trying them. They are likely to become easier with practice.

Also, please keep in mind that it is important to not only focus on the words being said. Tone, body language, and implication are also meaningful ways that people communicate. That is true both for your teen and for yourself, so be mindful of your own attentiveness, tone, and body language.