with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Active and Reflective Listening

This meeting was very exciting and here is a summary of the program for those who missed out.

Active Listening – Are You Being Heard?

graphic of an earActive listening is traditionally considered a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding. Many have come to think of it as structured conversation, where one person talks and then the listener gives feedback or summarizes what is being said. As we work to improve the quality of our lives, active listening means "actively" listening, not just role playing. It means to really hear what is being said, not just the words, but working through to the deeper meaning, by which you enrich the relationship between each other.

In the traditional school of active listening, the benefits of active listening include:

  • People choose to focus and concentrate on the speaker.
  • They avoid misunderstandings as people confirm what they hear.
  • It gets people to say more and it helps them to open up more.

Here is what I believe active listening really does for you:

  • You learn to focus and concentrate
  • You learn to live in the moment – to be present
  • You can learn more about others, as well as learn more about yourself
  • You seek confirmation to clarify what you are learning from the other person
  • You learn to live and communicate at a deeper level
  • You learn to hear not just what is being said, but what is being felt
  • You learn to trust others and yourself

In exercises, we broke the group up into pairs, with people they didn’t know well. For the first exercise, one person spoke and the other was to listen without comment. For many, it was hard to just listen. Some people wanted to jump in with their own stories, or to ask questions, others to interrupt and guide the conversation. Others had a hard time staying focused on the speaker, their brain off and running somewhere else. Many faced the most difficult challenge of all, anticipating and predicting the end of the story.

All of us have a life history that brought us to where we are. When we hear similar or related experiences, we often jump to conclusions as to where the story is going. Since we already know the end, why should we mentally hang around to hear it? Listening actively means being in the moment, to focus and concentrate on what is being said, and to uncover the meaning behind the words and emotions driving the story. Prejudging a story before it is over is little different than prejudging the person before they even open their mouth.

graphic of the word assume - when you assume you make an ass out of u and meI long time ago I learned a little English saying about assumptions that has stayed with me. It says that when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME. Cute, but true. Living in the moment and listening to the story, opening yourself up to the flow of the story and the process of the story-telling, you never know what insights you will learn or experience as the speaker moves through a story which maybe different from your experiences or which may challenge or change your attitude on the subject. As you listen, be aware of the assumptions you make in order to get past yourself and your judgments to open yourself up to the other person and their stories and feelings.

Surrounded by many semi-fluent English speakers, I’ve learned to help them fill in a word they are struggling over. This involves careful listening to the flow of the conversation so I’m ready to help them say the word when they stumble. I am constantly challenging myself to not graphic of two heads, as a puzzle, fitting togetherassume what it is they want to say, as they scramble with their limited vocabulary and experimenting with words in order to get their thoughts out. It is a battle for me to become a platform for them to trip around on instead of a dominating, overcorrecting commander.

In our program exercises, the experiences for the speakers were also interesting. Some enjoyed being "heard", some for the first time. Others felt nervous and said they were felt the listener couldn’t possibly be interested in what they had to say. Many felt uncomfortable as the only one talking, waiting for some response to lead them to the next sentence, running out of words without the other’s guidance.

We discussed the physical characteristics of a good listener. The listener leaned in, some moved even closer to hear what was being said. Others cocked their heads, didn’t fidget, and looked like they were concentrating and paying attention continuously. All agreed that eye-contact was important. A couple of speakers mentioned they had a hard time meeting the eyes of the listener because they felt inadequate or guilty about what they were talking about. The topic was the book, Life Makeovers, and doing the assignments within the book. Those who hadn’t been reading the book or doing their homework felt the guilt of their inaction and it came out through a physical avoidance of the eyes.

Reflective Listening

Learning how to listen and how to be heard is important, as is learning how to provide feedback to keep the conversation going and to take it to a deeper level. The second exercise involved one person speaking and being listened to, but at the end of the time, the listener would have to sum up what they heard. More than summarize, they were to look deeper than mere words. Their summation was to be a reflection back of the feelings and the purpose behind the speech, not a verbatim summation.

Most of the people felt the summation was right on, and a few people summarized by offering their opinions or advice, which wasn’t in the rules. Not that this is right or wrong. It is natural to turn a conversation around from you to ME. Most of us get carried away with "I want to talk about ME!" The exercise was a test on leaving "me" out of the conversation.

This process is called "reflective listening". Here are some guidelines:

THINGS TO DO: THINGS TO NOT DO:
Appreciate their talents
Care about what is being said
Hear the story behind the words
Find the purpose of the story according to the speaker
Consider the person’s feelings and reasons
Go deeper
Expand the conversation and relationship
Ask leading questions like "tell me more about…" and "How do you feel about…"
Assume the outcome
Offer advice
Interrogate (question sharply or harshly)
Evaluate or judge the person or the situation
Minimize or trivialize the person’s feelings or concerns
Analyze the person or situation
Turn the conversation to yourself
Jump topics

It has been said that an idea is worth nothing unless it is communicated. Leaders are people who make ideas come alive through communication skills. All of these skills are not inherent or come in the chromosomes. They are learned, developed, and practiced over time.

What Makes Good Conversationalists?

Think back to those few people who influenced you and had a great impact on your life. Think about the friends, family, mentors, teachers, the people who took time out from their life to make you feel important. How would you describe the communication between you? Was it meaningful, empathetic, or inspirational? Did you feel like they were connecting to your soul or sprit with their words? Did it feel almost telepathic they way they knew exactly what you needed to hear at that moment? In a close relationship, words flow almost without effort, and sometimes without even the words. There is a deeper understanding.

Where does this connection come from? Is it because of them or ourselves? Is it because we are exceptional at expressing ourselves in words and body language that we are understood so sincerely? Or is it because we are masters at listening, being open to the moment and experience shared with another? Naturally both qualities are important, but don’t forget that God gave you two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion. The chances are that those who influenced us the most were powerful listeners, hearing the deeper meaning behind what we said and when they spoke, we listened.

Whether instinctively or through the development of their listening skills, they have developed the skill of empathy. A researcher from Maine, Dr. Marisue Pickering, identified four characteristics of empathetic listeners.

  • Desire to be other-directed, rather than to project one’s own feelings and ideas onto the other. [This means that the listener puts the other person first without judgment or assumptions about the story or the story-teller.]
  • Desire to be non-defensive, rather than to protect the self. When the self is being protected, it is difficult to focus on another person. [When you let down your barriers, the walls of self protection, you open yourself up to really hearing what the other person is saying and you can invite lessons into your life based upon their experiences.]
  • Desire to imagine the roles, perspectives, or experiences of the other, rather than assuming they are the same as one’s own. [This is living vicariously through the other person, learning about their experiences and lessons without grouping them with your own. This is another opportunity to learn through others.]
  • Desire to listen as a receiver, not as a critic, and desire to understand the other person rather than to achieve either agreement from or change that person. [Imagine yourself as a great sponge-like microphone through which another projects her story. It is not your job to agree or disagree, or to fix the person or the problem. There is a big difference between acceptance and agreement.]

Burden Put Upon the Speaker

As we focus more on the listener in active and reflective listening, inherently there arises a burden upon the speaker to make sure they are saying something interesting and worth hearing. Everyone needs to be heard, but it is also the responsibility of the speaker to provide meaningful information not just wasted breath.

Consider the dos and don’ts associated with active and reflective listening and see if any of these apply to your speaking habits. Do you tend to stay focused and on topic or does your conversation style jump around leaving incomplete thoughts and sentences dangling? We tend to love the sound of our own voice, so are you talking just to make noise or do you have a point to your story? Do you feel like you just "have" to share a story for the sake of talking or is the story really important enough to be heard? What is the purpose and deeper meaning behind your story? What emotions are you expressing through your story? Just because you had trouble catching the bus doesn’t mean we have to hear the whole story of how much trouble it was to catch the bus. The key points may suffice. Consider the importance of what you have to say to other people. Do they need to hear this? Is it appropriate for the time and place and the emotional state you both are in? Can it wait?

Is your mind racing ahead of your words so you can be ready to speak when there is a pause, not even listening to the responses? Conversation can be challenging when you are focused on what you are going to say rather than on what is being said.

Do you talk to make yourself feel good or look good? Do you talk the way you do to make yourself look more important to the listener? Do you tend to put others down when you talk? Do you tend to use a lot of "I" statements?

Do you play the game of one-upmanship? If someone tells a story, do you have to tell a better story? Does the competitive spirit goad you to tell an even bigger story, because whatever happened to you must be better or worse than what happened to them?

Consider the responsibilities you have as the speaker and the role you play within a conversation. Do you allow equal time for listening and speaking? As you talk, are you really listening? And consider if it is really more important for you to be heard than to hear others.

Personal Moments

About a month after Brent and I were married, I paused in my fussing around the apartment to remind him about an event we had scheduled. "You didn’t tell me about that," resentment creased his face.

"Yes, I did. I told you about it two weeks ago."

His face crumpled and he moved away. I followed him into the bedroom, determined to figure out what was going on. He sat on the bed, tears seeping down his face. "What’s wrong?"

"It is so important for me to hear you, to really listen to you. I can’t imagine not hearing every word you say, and now you tell me that I wasn’t listening to you."

I was so surprised. Raised by a family of non-listeners, one of my fundamental beliefs is that what I have to say isn’t worth hearing. Now I am married a man who values my every word. "Honey, married people do this all the time. There are so many words flying around that they all can’t be heard."

He grabbed my hands. "That’s not true. I want to listen and hear everything you have to say. I want you to really listen to me, too. The rest of the world might not listen to us, but we have to listen to each other. I promise that I will work harder on listening to you and remembering what you tell me. You are that important to me."

We did work on it, but a few years later, as "take for granted" seeped in, Brent lost his temper about my listening habits. "When I start talking, you leave the room."

Stunned, I realized that I had been perpetuating my mother’s behavior of fussing around, starting the conversation in one room and then finishing it two rooms later. All my life I would follow her from room to room asking, "What did you say?" She would get frustrated repeating herself, yet every time she would get to the part I missed, she would walk out of the room again. My mother is hyperactive, never sitting still for long. I was behaving the same way with my husband and best friend.

I fight with this lifelong habit every day. Brent now stops talking when I leave the room, a clue to me about my selfish behavior. I am constantly battling with the importance of listening to him and the reality of all the stuff I have to do. The stuff usually seems more important at the time, but in reality it is just another excuse to avoid intimacy and trust that comes with focused, concentrated listening.

How are you using your listening skills in your life? Are you using techniques that lift your life to a higher level, improving the quality of your life and others? Or are you using them as self-defense mechanisms, avoiding deep relationships and intimacy? Don’t forget, you don’t do anything without a reason. If you don’t stop to look at your reasons, you are missing some valuable lessons.


The Life Makeovers year long project has completed in Tel Aviv with Lorelle VanFossen and Ruth Alfi, but you can get involved or start your own group through the author of the book, Life Makeovers, Cheryl Richardson.

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