Seek First to Understand
Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Stephen Covey popularized this phrase, and for good reason. Understanding is the foundation of effective communication. Reflective listening (or active listening) is a powerful tool to create understanding.
A reflective listener listens for meaning and checks with the speaker to see that a statement has been correctly heard and understood. The goal is to improve mutual understanding. The listener suspends judgment and personal reactions and stays completely focused on the speaker.
It sounds simple enough, but the times it’s most important to listen are the times when it’s hardest to listen. That’s why it’s important to know how to use reflexive listening scripts to seek to understand. Here are the dos, don’ts and PowerPhrases which are useful word phrases in active listening.
1. When someone becomes defensive, offer to listen reflectively
DON’T: keep pushing your point against their resistance.
Why not?: It doesn’t work. Resisting resistance intensifies it. Switching into reflective listening breaks the pattern.
DO: recognize defensiveness as an indication it’s time to back off and be present to the needs of the other person.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “It seems to me we’re misunderstanding each other. I’d like to practice reflective listening and focus on understanding you completely. Are you open to that?”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "You’re not hearing me."
2. If you prefer, slip into reflective listening without telling the speaker what you’re doing.
DON’T: stick robotically to the script to the point of being obvious or unnatural.
Why not?: It will come across as patronizing.
DO: be prepared with phrases to keep you focused and adapt those phrases to be natural in the situation.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I’d like to focus on what you’re saying until I’m sure I get it.”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: N/A.
3. Avoid temptation to switch the focus to you
DON’T: respond by relating what they say to your own stories and experience.
Why not?: It takes the attention off them and puts it back on you, which interrupts the flow.
DO: speak with the intent of mirroring or reflecting what they are saying.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “It sounds like you…
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "That reminds me of when I…"
4. Suspend judgment and keep the focus on understanding
DON’T: reflect on the rightness or wrongness of what they are saying.
Why not?: Judgment blocks the disclosure.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “Tell me more.”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: - “I can’t believe you did that."
5. Be prepared with neutral phrases to use while they speak
DON’T: go in without having sentences ready to reflect what they are telling you.
Why not?: If they say something you have an opinion about, your prepared mirroring phrases will help you resist injecting judgment.
DO: practice several phrases in advance.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I want to hear what you have to say.”, “I didn’t know you felt that way. Tell me more.”, “I see why that would be an issue for you.”, “I can imagine how that might have felt.”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "You’re overreacting."
6. Mirror what they’re saying in four areas: the facts, what they think, what they feel, and what they want
DON’T: switch into evaluation, defensiveness or promoting your own perspective.
Why not?: Until you are clear you understand what they are saying and they know that you do, you haven’t reached the goal of reflective listening – accurate mirroring of their message.
DO: Clarify what you hear and understand them to be telling you, even if (or especially if) you think what they are saying is bogus.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “Let me see if I understand what you are saying. You’re saying I’m habitually late, you think I don’t make our appointments a priority, you feel neglected, and you want me to be on time. Is my understanding correct?”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "You say I’m always late but you’re wrong. You’re late more often than I am."
7. Avoids any need to be right
DON’T: try to prove them wrong and yourself right no matter how much you believe it’s true.
Why not?: The more you attempt to be the one that’s right, the more resistance you create.
DO: keep your focus on the goal of every moment. During reflective listening, the goal is to understand. You can seek to be understood later, but throughout the process you need to stay away from polarizing speech like being right and wrong.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “That may be. Please continue.” (Once you’ve confirmed understanding you can switch to, “I understand you think X. Can I explain my perspective?”)
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "I can’t believe you even think that."
8. Keep reflecting back until they agree that you hear them correctly
DON’T: try to rush the process.
Why not?: Complete understanding takes time.
DO: allow the process as much time as it takes.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “I’m learning a lot. Tell me more.”, “Would you agree that I understand what you are saying now?”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "This is taking forever." or, "I get it, I get it." (If they don’t think you’ve got it, you haven’t done your job.)
9. Once they feel understood, ask for your turn
DON’T: just listen.
Why not?: That’s passive. Steven Covey says seek first to understand and THEN to be understood.
DO: ask them to give you a specific amount of time to express your perspective.
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “You agree I understand what you’re saying. Can I have five minutes of your time to share mine?”
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "Okay. My turn."
10. Follow-up with problem-solving techniques
DON’T: stop now!
Why not?: Once you’ve reached understanding, it’s important to decide what you’re going to do about it.
DO: use a conflict resolution formula to reach resolution. (The CASE formula is a great one, in PowerPhrases!)
POWER PHRASE / What to say: “It feels great to be understanding each other. Lets work together to figure out how we want to handle these situations in the future."
POISON PHRASE / What not to say: "We’ve been working with this long enough."
Reflective listening is a powerful tool for communication
Sometimes people think they’ve said too much when they bring up an issue and things get emotionally stirred up. I say they haven’t said enough. Reflective listening can be a powerful and amazing tool for communication, but it can be a dangerous tool if used half-way. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing and a little bit of understanding is a dangerous thing as well. However, complete knowledge is powerful, and so is complete understanding. Reflective listening is your key to reaching that kind of understanding.