Skill #1 – Reflect: Think of this skill as holding up a verbal mirror to the person to whom you are listening and trying to understand.
When someone shares something with you, a first step is to reflect to them what you’ve heard them say. Essentially, tell them what they just told you using your own words. This gives the person a chance to either confirm that the initial message was correctly transmitted or indicate that the initial message was not accurately sent or received.
This not the time to argue details. This is not the time to make a point. This is not the time to try and fix the situation. This is the time to confirm that you heard correctly what your partner has said and the perspective and feelings they are trying to convey. Too often we might respond to something said without receiving the message accurately to begin with. This can lead to having two different conversations or arguments at the same time, which is certainly not effective.
This step will require you to slow down…and focus on hearing the message that your partner is sending. This step might require you to push aside or be patient with your own thoughts or feelings about the situation. Many of us have difficulty slowing down when having a difficult conversation, particularly when our partner is feeling some kind of way. We don’t want them to be upset and instead of trying to understand what they are feeling and why, we quickly try and push or pull them out of their feelings. A good couples therapist can help you understand and experience slowing down during sessions.
Just like a mirror reflects a visual image, confirming
what you heard someone say creates a sort of verbal mirror. Reflecting holds that verbal mirror up to them so they know what you are hearing them say and can confirm that what you heard is an accurate reflection of their perspective. Again, reflecting someone’s message back to them requires you to slow down and focus on their perspective for a moment, which is almost always helpful in difficult discussions.
Keep in mind, this skill is not needed in many situations. For example, if your partner asks you to pass the salt during dinner, the message is simple and clear and does not require you to say, “So, it sounds like you’re saying your food is a bit bland and you’d like me to give you the salt?” However, if your partner is seemingly upset about something and you are having a hard time understanding why, or they hold a different perspective than you, reflecting might be crucial.
If the concept of reflecting someone’s verbal message is a new concept for you, here are a few sentence-stems you can use as you practice the skill of reflection.
- “What I heard you say was ______________.”
- “I’m not sure if I understand. Are you saying ___________?”
- “It sounds like you feel ____________________; is that accurate?”
The goal here is to listen for their perspective or feelings, not focus on other details or debate the accuracy of their perspective. Allow them their perspective, even if you don’t agree or have a hard time understanding how they could feel or see things that way.
Wedding band story
Remember the story I started sharing in Part 1? When my wife saw the ring that I had made for her, she was clearly not entirely thrilled. I was hoping that she would have felt surprised, excited, grateful, or happy, which is not the vibe she gave off. Later, when she expressed that she felt sad, I had an emotional reaction to that, feeling confused, hurt, and disappointed. Look for a future blog about anger as a secondary emotion, which helps explain why I resisted allowing those feelings from turning into anger.
Despite how I was feeling and my perspective that she “should have” felt something other than sad, I still needed to start with reflecting what she was trying to express, rather than defend against my own feelings or argue against her perspective. After all, she is my wife, my best friend, and I really want to make sure I hear and understand her. As my closest ally and someone I love passionately, treating her as a human being with valid feelings, thoughts, and ideas is something I strive to keep as a priority. I encourage you to strive for the same with your partner.
Look for Part 3 of this blog to read about the second listening strategy (being curious) you might learn in therapy.
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.