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How To Help Without Helping

“Not everyone with a problem needs you to solve it. Sometimes all a person needs is to feel like they’ve been heard. Listening without judging can be more effective than injecting your opinions or trying to solve a problem that doesn’t have an easy answer.” 
Zero Dean, Lessons Learned from The Path Less Traveled Volume 1


I Thought You Were Trying To Pull A Fast One

Amy had given me the card with the web address that Mr. Shroeder had given out at the meeting I missed by being late. She said the website would explain everything I needed to know to work on my project.

There were five of us on the team. We were each to work on a new app that would help predict a person’s next move. It was a form of AI – artificial intelligence – but something simpler, more like a smart calendar. We were all to work on our own version then we’d evaluate each app and put them together to make a really good product.

I sat at my desk trying to read the code and the instructions, but it all seemed to get confused in my head. “Was it because of the accident? Did I get hurt and didn’t realize it? Maybe it was stress over the accident. Or did the information just not make sense to me?”

Jenny, my supposed best friend, approached my desk, “I’m really sorry about the way I treated you before. I really thought you were making it all up. You just overslept and thought I’d help you and you’d take the credit. I’m really sorry. I saw them towing your car away. You really were in an accident.”

My eyes filled with tears. Maybe I was having a side effect from the accident. Jenny put her arm around my shoulders. “You’re not okay are you?”

I shook my head ‘no’.


Purpose of Reflective Listening

The purpose of reflective listening is to verify the message sent by the speaker before trying to understand. It also allows the speaker to ‘hear’ their own thoughts and process what they say and feel. The listener shows the speaker that he/she is trying to perceive the world as the speaker sees it. It empowers the speaker to feel heard and encourages them to continue.

It can enable the speaker in working through his or her thoughts, to decide on a course of action, or explore his or her feelings in more depth. It can be a very valuable communication tool in problem resolution.


The Process of Reflective listening

Reflective listening involves two steps:

  • Hearing and comprehending what the speaker is saying through their words and body language.
  • Reflecting back the speaker’s thoughts and feelings you perceived.

It requires complete focus on what the speaker is saying for comprehension. In reflective listening, you do not offer your perspective but carefully keep your focus on the speaker’s message. It is a way of verifying that the listener has heard correctly. For this to be effective, the listener must be able to perceive accurately what the speaker is experiencing and communicating. If a communication problem arises, stay in the present and work through it.

The two processes involved in reflective listening:

  • Mirroring is repeating back to the speaker almost word for word what was said. It is taught because it employs focused listening. The listener listens to the words and simply repeats them.
  • Paraphrasing uses other words to reflect what the speaker is saying. In paraphrasing, the listener must be careful not to add their own perspective, but keep the focus on what the speaker is actually saying.

Basic Reflective Listening 

Opening                            Feeling                        About/Because/When/Thought

It sounds like                             You’re upset                        About missing the meeting
I heard you say                          You’re feeling sad               Because of your car
If I hear you correctly                 You’re feeling glad             That your car wasn’t totaled
You seem to be saying               You’re feeling afraid           About not getting the information
I think I hear you saying             You’re feeling confused     Because of your headache
I’m not following you                 You feel dizzy                     Because of hitting your head
Am I hearing you say                  You need to go                  Because you’re sick


Jenny’s  Reflective Listening

“I’ve been trying to read through the code and instructions and I can’t make any sense of it. I don’t seem to be able to focus my eyes. It’s all running together.”

“I hear you saying that maybe you have a physical problem from the accident. You’re not feeling well,” Jenny said (Paraphrasing without asking questions or giving an opinion or advice).

I sat for a moment, “I think that’s what I’m saying. Maybe I just need to lie down for a while. But, I can’t go home. They just towed my car.”

“You seem to be saying that you need to lie down for a while but you don’t have a way to go home,” Jenny paraphrased.

“I’m starting to get dizzy. Could you take me home?”

“I heard you say that you’re getting dizzy, because of the accident.  You also asked me to take you home. Is that correct?” Jenny reflected.

“I’m hearing myself say that maybe I am hurt. I think I do need to go home. I’ll go talk to Mr. Schroder. Maybe you can take me home,” I said to Jenny.

Jenny walked back to her desk without saying anything further.

Jenny did not put her own perspective into the communication which enabled the speaker to hear her own words and evaluate the situation clearly from her own perspective.  Because of the trauma, the speaker suffered in the accident she wasn’t able to look at her situation to make an honest decision. She did need to verbalize her thoughts.


Problem with Reflective Listening

Sometimes it is very difficult for the listener to just mirror what was said without offering their own interpretation or perspective. In that case, the listener is listening autobiographically, which is listening with reflective skills, but listening with the intent to reply, control, or manipulate.

Basically, reflective listening involves mimicking what the speaker has said. It can sometimes be received as an insult by the speaker and can cause the speaker to close up.

Reflective listening mirrors what is said. It does help the speaker verbalize what is on their mind. Often times, a person needs to verbalize their thoughts in order to sort them out. As you noticed, it seems very cold even when the listener reflects the speaker’s feelings. It reflects the speaker’s problem which helped her sort through her thoughts. But there is no empathy, no sense that Jenny feels anything or even cares.


Reflective Listening vs. Empathic Listening

Reflective listening helps the speaker feel understood and it gives them the opportunity to focus their ideas. It acknowledges the speaker’s feelings and emotions but does not express empathy. It’s just an acknowledgment.

Empathic listening is seeking first to understand, to really understand. Listen to get inside another person’s point of view. It’s like trying to see through their eyes, to see the world the way they see it, to truly understand their frame of reference. It is listening with all of our faculties, plus our heart and mind.

Mr. Schroeder’s Reflecting with Empathy

I walked into Mr. Schroeder’s office, “Mr. Schroeder, I’m really sorry, but I think I need to go home or to the doctor. I can’t seem to think and I’m starting to get really dizzy, but I don’t have a way to get home. They just towed my car.”

“Here sit down. I can tell you aren’t doing well,” he said as he pulled a chair up close to his desk.

He picked up his phone, “Nurse, could you please come to my office. I have a lady here that needs some attention.”

He got a cold pack out of the little refrigerator in his office, “Put this on your head. The nurse will decide if you need to go to the doctor or if you’re okay to go home.”

“But…” I started to say.

“I know you don’t have a car. I’ll get somebody from transport to take you where you need to go.”

“But, the project. I’ll be behind if I go home. I really need to work on it.”

“I hear that you’re worried about your share of the project. Let’s see what the nurse says. You’re a good developer. It won’t take long for you to catch-up,” he said.


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