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The art of effective communication and listening
by Niki Collins-Queen   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Posted: Saturday, March 31, 2012

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Reflective listening and I-messages are the keys to effective communication.


To maintain a satisfying, respectful more loving relationship with family or friends we need to know how to communicate effectively.

Communication between people can be open or closed. Closed responses cut off communication. It shows the listener has neither heard nor understood what was said.

Closed responses that diminish communication include lecturing, advising, evaluating, ridiculing, nagging, reminding, criticizing, cajoling, threatening, questioning and probing. Poor communication is a way of life for many people.

Other roles we play to cut off communication include:

A Commander in Chief demands the person get rid of the negative feelings immediately and shape up. Orders, commands and threats are the tools used to keep things under control and the upper hand.

A Moralist is concerned with “proper” feelings and behavior. They preach and tell you what you should and shouldn't do.

A Know-it-all sees themselves as more knowledgeable and superior. They lecture, advise, make appeals and reason with the person.

A Judge pronounces the person guilty without a trial. They are more interested in proving they are right and the other person is wrong.

A Critic is not only interested in being right but uses jokes, ridicule, name calling and sarcasm to put others down.

A Consoler tries to avoid hearing about the persons problems and fears by treating their feelings lightly. They use a pat on the back or the reassurance that all is well when it's not.

A psychologist tries to hear all the details and analyze the problem so they will be in a better position to set the person straight. They diagnose, analyze and question.

Going on the offensive or defensive is another sure way to shut down communication. Also to respond as a victim (complaining) or victor (competing).

Reflective Listening is the key to being an effective listener. It shows you care enough to listen and makes it easier for the person to communicate with you. Reflective Listening means we use open responses which reflect the other person's feelings and meanings. Reflective listening is reflecting back and clarifying the other person's problem and feelings to help THEM solve their problem. Unlike closed responses that cut off communication reflective listening is an open response that encourages communication. Becoming an effective listener means being silent, establishing eye contact and a posture that says “I am listening.” It requires you let the person know you recognize the feelings behind what they are saying and what they are not saying. By listening reflectively we can help a person think through and clarify their feelings about their problem.

Reflective listening allows others to express their beliefs and feelings honestly without anger, fear or rejection. You accept what the other person says and feels, even if you don't agree with them. You also show acceptance for the feelings of others through your tone of voice and words.

An example of reflective listening might be when a wife tells her husband, “I don't like how your personality changes when you drink!” The husband's open response could be, “You're afraid of what I might do or say when I'm drinking.” When the husband reflective listens to his wife's message he clearly indicates he has heard the feeling behind his wife's words. A closed response by the husband might be, “Here we go again. I just had a little wine. You're always exaggerating!”

The husband's closed response shows he does not accept his wife's feelings. He is saying what she feels doesn't matter. This type of put-down blocks communication and leaves the wife feeling frustrated and rejected. The open response recognizes what the wife is feeling and shows acceptance and concern. When his wife feels heard and understood she is more inclined to continue speaking and to listen to his feelings and concerns. When we respond non-judgmentally by accepting the other person's feelings and meanings, both verbal and nonverbally, we strengthen empathy and communication.

Another example might be when the husband and wife become separated while biking. He yells at her, “You left me! Never do that again!” An open reflective listening response by the wife could be, “You were afraid we might not find each other again!” By silently deciding not to respond with anger or defensiveness she communicated acceptance. Our actions, facial expressions, tone of voice communicate whether we are listening. Reflective listening lets heartfelt sharing replace heated arguments.

Reflective listening requires sensitivity to a wide range of feelings and the ability to express them. It encourages the person to feel heard and to keep talking. Reflective listening is a skill that requires effort and practice. You cannot expect to be a skilled listener when you are first learning. When a person expresses a problem ask yourself, “What are they feeling?” Then put the feeling word into a sentence. When you concentrate on what the person is feeling you will find your reflective listening response comes much easier.

People sometimes find it difficult to think of words to explain feelings. Use specific words and avoid overusing the word “upset.” Specific words for “upset” include: accused, angry, anxious, bored, defeated, difficult, disappointed, discouraged, disrespected, doubt, embarrassed, feel like giving up, frightened, guilty, hate, hated, hopeless, hurt, inadequate, incapable, left out, miserable, put down, rejected, sad, stupid, unfair, unhappy, unloved, want to get even, worried and worthless.

Since reflective listening is new the other person might be startled by your reaction. They may look surprised and acknowledge your statement, “Yes, that's right” and walk away. You could keep the communication open by asking, “Would you like to talk about it?” Or depending on the situation make no response and wait for another opportunity. Most people will want to continue talking about their feelings especially if they have intense feelings of hurt, anger or sadness. Keep reflective listening even if there is a heated response until the person's tone and behavior show a desire to stop. People don't always work through their problems in the listening sessions. Patience and effort help others see problems more clearly and enables them to handle the situation on their own.

Your reflective listening does not need to be perfect. If you are sincere in an attempt to understand but mis-identify the feeling, the person will let you know and you can try again. Don't give up if reflective listening does not work immediately. The person needs time to make the decision to change. It takes most people awhile to realize their former behavior patterns no longer work for them. Practice plus patience equals progress.

Be cautious and use discretion when reflective listening. Keep your feedback statements tentative, watch your tone of voice and avoid sounding like a mind reader. Reflective listening can be overdone.

Once your reflective listening skills improve you are ready to explore alternatives. Usually people can solve their own problems simply through being heard by a another caring person. However sometimes if the person feels stuck you can help them consider advantages and disadvantages of various courses of action.

The second key to effective communication is the use of “I-messages.” This means becoming aware of who owns the problem when expressing your ideas and feelings. To determine who owns the problem ask, “Whose problem is it?” Who is experiencing difficulty? Whose desires, needs and purposes are not being met? If you decide it is your needs that are not being met then it is your problem. Using an I-message is a special way to share your feeling with others that makes it more likely to be heard, understood and to receive a positive response. When talking to others it is helpful to think in terms of “I-messages” and “You-messages.” The You-message lays blame and criticism on the other person. It is a verbal attack as it suggests the other person is at fault.

The I-message describes how the person's behavior makes you feel. The I-message focuses on you, not the other person. It is nonjudgmental and does not assign blame. The tone of voice is crucial. An I-message delivered in anger becomes a You-message conveying hostility.

The focus is on the consequence of the behavior rather than on the behavior itself.

An I-message has three parts. The behavior interfering with you (don't blame), state the feeling about the consequence and describe the consequence. A good formula is: When you (behavior) I feel …. because (consequence).

Instead of the husband yelling at his wife he could have given her an I-message, “You left me! Never do that again!” could become, “I'm afraid of not being able to find you again.” The wife's I-message when her husband yelled at her could become, “I feel hurt and angry - like I'm a child when you yell at me.”

The art of effective listening communicates faith in the person through words, gestures and tone of voice. Other qualities that improve relationships include unconditional love, listening, mutual respect, kindness, encouragement and taking time for fun.


This article had been adapted from Don Dinkmeyer and GaryD Mackay's “Parent's Handbook” Systematic Training for Effective Parenting.


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