|Untitled by KaMa Photography, cc license|
"Jason, burp cloth!"
Those silly things constantly fall off my shoulder, unnoticed, so that I rarely have one handy at that moment I desperately need it. Although my words don't change, Jason can easily determine the extent of the mess and urgency from the sound of my voice.
When we speak, the words we choose make up just one part of what we're communicating. Non-verbal cues (e.g., tone of voice, facial expression, and body posture) make up the rest of the message. It's often within the non-verbal communicating that we find clues to the way a person is feeling. When we're able to identify and reflect those feelings, we demonstrate what we understand and facilitate communication on a deeper (and more productive!) level.
Why Identify and Reflect Feelings?
I once interviewed a crisis hotline volunteer candidate who had a strong foreign accent. I asked him if he had any concerns about being able to communicate, but he responded that he wasn't concerned because when one heart talks to another, accents don't get in the way. He was so right. When you focus on identifying and communicating about feelings, it creates a heart-to-heart connection that opens the conversation to deeper sharing. This, of course, helps us meet the active listening goal of understanding. Reflecting non-judgmentally then allows us to demonstrate that understanding.
Reflecting feelings is especially useful in conversations where emotions are elevated. In these cases, emotional content must be voiced and acknowledged before the conversation can move forward to a more calm and practical place. Let's say your friend is telling you about her annual work review, which didn't go as well as she had hoped. Your typical response may be to reassure her that she's incredible and has nothing to worry about, but you've decided to try out a different approach. As you listen and reflect her feeling upset and disappointed, she is able to discharge those emotions and the venting may help to uncover more feelings. Perhaps she also feels angry and resentful about some of the feedback she received. Since you didn't brush off her feelings and move quickly to reassure her that everything is going to be okay, her energy will shift from convincing you how upsetting this is and she may be able to clarify that she's feeling fearful that she may be fired, or worse, that she's been working in the wrong field for too long. The simple act of identifying and reflecting feelings, in this case, leads to deeper understanding, vented feelings, and more clarity around the issue at hand. Powerful stuff!
How to Identify and Reflect Feelings?
Feelings are not always revealed by what is said, but by how it is said. To identify feelings, pay attention to what is being said as well as the non-verbals that go along with it:
- Tone of voice
- Volume and speed of speaking
- Facial expressions and eye contact
- Body posture and movement
Once you've identified the feelings behind what someone has said, the next step is to reflect those feelings to communicate what you understand. Use a statment using the word 'feeling' and name the feeling you've identified. Here are some examples:
- It sounds like you're feeling...
- I hear you're feeling...
- It seems you may be feeling...
- Perhaps you're feeling...
- So you're feeling...
After you've reflected a feeling, pause so that the person you're talking with has a moment to process what you've observed. She may want to affirm, clarify, or correct what you've said. She may need some time to let your statement sink in or she may just continue talking, encouraged by your attention.
Practice Identifying and Reflecting Feelings
If you are someone who likes to dive right in to new experiences, by all means, simply begin identifying and reflecting the feelings of those you talk to in every day life.
For those who prefer to ease into new skills, take a couple of days to just notice the feelings behind what you're hearing in every day life. Once you've tuned into feelings, start reflecting them a few times a day. Try different people and different contexts (e.g., work and home). Start with what feels safe; it may be easier to try this out with a stranger rather than someone with whom you already have a set conversational pattern. I'm especially fond of chatting with cashiers. :) As you use more reflective listening skills, notice how it affects the conversations you're having.
Next in the Active Listening Primer: Reflecting Content
The Active Listening Primer
Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
- Identifying and Reflecting Feelings (you are here)
- Reflecting Content
- Asking Productive Questions
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen