Thursday, December 12, 2013

Basic Active Listening Skills: Reflecting Content

Balls by Johnathan Nightingale, cc license
We've all been guilty. You're "listening" to someone talk, but your mind is working on something else entirely. You're planning tonight's dinner, wondering when the library books are due, or even thinking about the next point you want to make in the current conversation. Whatever your mind is doing, it is not actively listening. Staying present and fully attending to what someone is saying can be a real challenge. Putting your mind to the task of reflecting feelings and content keeps you engaged.

I like to break down reflecting content into three useful techniques: Paraphrasing, Clarifying (paraphrasing with a question), and Reframing (paraphrasing with a twist).

Paraphrasing: Why and How?

Paraphrasing is simply stating what you hear in a succinct response. Perhaps I shouldn't use the world 'simply' there. It takes a good deal of attention and quick processing to paraphrase effectively. When it's done well, paraphrasing, 1) demonstrates understanding, 2) helps to verify that your understanding is accurate, and 3) offers clarity and deeper understanding to the person you're reflecting.

To paraphrase, listen closely and then sum up what you're hearing in one concise sentence. After sharing the paraphrased statement, pause and allow the other person either to respond or to continue talking.

Here's an example:
"...But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if any thing belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will  do me good; and I say, God bless it!" 
Paraphrasing: "You believe the value of Christmas comes from the way it brings people together in the spirit of generosity." 

Clarifying: Why and How? 

Clarifying is similar to paraphrasing, but instead of just restating what is heard, you explicitly ask whether you are understanding correctly. Clarifying, like paraphrasing, facilitates deeper understanding, but puts emphasis on demonstrating your desire to understand. It's a good tool to use when you're dealing with complicated subject matter or anytime you're a bit overwhelmed with information.

Clarifying is accomplished by first giving a cue that you want to make sure you're on the same page and then paraphrasing. Your 'cue' may go something like this:

  • Let me see if I understand you...
  • I'm not sure I'm with you...
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm hearing that...
After paraphrasing, you can either ask for verification (e.g., "Is that correct?") or just pause and allow the other person to absorb what you've said and respond. 

Here's an example of clarifying: 

"You fear the world too much... All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?"

Clarifying: "Let me make sure I'm with you. You believe my desire for money, which is the only thing I care about, comes from fearing what the world would do to me if I didn't have enough money?"

Reframing: Why and How? 

I think of reframing as paraphrasing what is said between the lines, and, after reflecting feelings, it's my favorite active listening tool. Reframing helps you direct the conversation towards feelings, behaviors, or values that may not otherwise be addressed. It can also help you redirect a conversation that is heading down a path you are not willing to follow. While nudging the conversation, reframing continues to demonstrate your understanding and your commitment to taking the conversation deeper. 

Reframing involves acknowledging not only the content of what someone has said, but also the values, behaviors, or feelings represented by what was said.  Here are a two examples:  

"...Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Chrsitmas! What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will...every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"

Reframing: "You value working and being fiscally responsible, so the wasted time and money offends you."

"At this time of the rolling year...I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Reframing: "You feel regretful about the lack of concern you showed towards others."

As with paraphrasing and clarifying, you should pause after making a reframing statement, allowing the other person to process, respond, or continue sharing.

Practice Reflecting Content

I had a lot of fun finding the examples I used here to demonstrate paraphrasing, clarifying, and reframing. I also found it to be great practice for these skills! Here's my suggestion for practicing reflecting content:

Find your own dialogue-rich source. Books and TV both work. So does eavesdropping in a coffee shop. :) Write down 3-5 different paragraphs to which you could potentially respond. For each of the paragraphs, write down how you could reflect the content in three different ways: Paraphrase, clarify, and reframe. When you're done, go back through your responses and note which technique would have been the most appropriate in each case.

Feeling good about your content reflecting skills? Awesome! Take 'em live, and notice how they affect your ability to attend during a conversation and the resulting quality of your interactions.

NOTE! All of the quotes used for examples are from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (seasonal, no?). 

Next in the Active Listening Primer: Asking Productive Questions

The Active Listening Primer

Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
Part 2: Basic Active Listening Skills
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen

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  1. So well thought-out, Mary! Those were good choices to use, too, for the examples. The writing in Mr. Dicken's time was a lot more formal and differs a lot from how we write today - I doubt there was an OMG to be had in that book! :)

  2. Thanks, Rayna! Nope - not a single OMG! :)

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