Listening Reflectively: How to Listen Well

Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

February 28, 2024

Listening well is a skill you can learn. You can practice becoming a better listener. In a previous post, we discussed deflective ways to listen. In unimportant small talk, we might well reassure, ask questions, offer advice, share our own stories, or divert the topic to a tangent, all just to keep the chit-chat flowing. But those are not paths to deeper conversation and strong listening. Listening well involves reflecting back to the speaker the emotional impact the speaker is sharing.

Name the Feeling

The key skill in reflective listening is to notice and name the emotion the speaker is expressing. Whatever it is they may be talking about, are they glad, mad, afraid, angry, or weary about it? Take a shot at naming it. Rather than getting distracted by the details of their topic, wonder first how they feel about it and name it out loud. If the speaker says, “My client was mad at me today,” you can say “Were you embarrassed?” and let the speaker know that you’re listening for their heart. Bearing witness to the emotional impact is a powerful way to show someone they are important enough for you to pay attention to their experience. And it’s as simple as putting a label on their feeling.

Some important words

So when trying to name what the speaker is feeling, use some simple phrases that introduce an emotion. You can say “That sounds…[difficult, embarrassing, irritating, exhilarating, etc.]” Another more direct phrase is “You sound…[mad, happy, sad, excited, disappointed, etc.] about that.” Another variation is to ask “You felt….[nervous, angry, glad, energized, etc.] about that?” Or you could just ask “How did you feel about that?”

Take the Second Chance

Amazingly, you can’t really get naming a feeling wrong, as mis-guessing their emotion only invites the speaker to clarify for you. If you respond “Were you embarrassed?” they might say “Yes, terribly!” or they might say “No, only irritated with the bad attitude.” Either way, even if you still don’t know what the client was mad about, you’ve invited the speaker to share their heart more deeply. When you name an emotion, the speaker will happily clarify what they’re feeling as they continue the story.

You Don’t Have to Fix It

Another benefit of being able to name the emotion is that you don’t need ready answers. You don’t have to fix their problem, or even understand what they’re talking about. You don’t have to soothe their emotion either. Fully feeling their feelings is part of their need to feel fully seen. Your job, for now at least, is just to bear witness to their experience as if it matters. You don’t need to gather all the details to understand it all. You don’t have to give advice. Chances are, they already know what to do next and just want someone to know what it’s like to be in this moment. My wife used to say, “I don’t need you to tell me that I’m standing in a puddle. I don’t need to learn how to step out of a puddle. I just need you to notice my shoes are wet.”

Listening is Not Agreeing

And listening isn’t the same as agreeing. You may be hearing things in the speaker’s story that give you pause. You may be thinking up corrective advice you want to share. And likely you’ll get to that point later in the conversation. But out of the gate, reflecting the emotion is the strongest way to begin a good conversation in which the speaker feels they’ve been well heard.

Once, when I was having a bad day, I said something sharp to my wife. She would have been well within her rights to rebuke my tone, but that likely would have escalated into a fight. Rather, she calmly named the emotion she heard in my voice, and I burst into tears because she noticed my pain. She still had the chance to point out my mistakes, but she had deflated my bad attitude.

As a parent, there have been times when my child was acting out and I was eager to correct. Starting with naming the emotion that was behind their bad behavior gave my child a chance to express the impact of this moment on them. It also helped me understand their heart before I responded. From there, once my child knew I saw how they felt, we could talk about what should come next. You may need to move on to asking more questions or giving corrective advice, but don’t start there.

Naming an Emotion is Empathy

Reflective listening is simply beginning with empathy. The skill of it is simply naming the emotion you hear. Naming the emotion requires you pay attention with your emotional radar enough to notice, but seeing the speaker’s heart is the most important part of having a deeper conversation.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Steven Koster

Steven Koster is a writer, speaker, and producer with Family Fire. Formerly the Director of ReFrame Media, Family Fire's parent organization, Steven currently serves at Grace Church and consults on ministry through The Joshua Lab. He also leads a hospitality ministry at The Parsonage Inn and enjoys family tree research as time allows. Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading marriage retreats and family seminars to encourage people in their most intimate relationships. The Kosters are the parents of three awesome young adults and reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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