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Reflective listening & "I" Messages

Updated: May 10

An Introduction

In conversation reflective listening is the ability to listen well and articulate back what you have understood in your own words. There are several benefits to reflective listening:

  • Helps us to listen to another person's conversation

  • To have confirmed or critiqued what we think we’ve understood

  • Lets the other person know they are being listened to, and through that listening, they are being heard and acknowledged

  • Allows the other person to hear back aspects of their own conversation

  • Assists the other person to gain clarity over matters which are not always clear to them

  • In some cases helps people to work out how to resolve what is on their mind

With reflective listening we are either:

  1. Seeking an agreement that we have heard correctly. In this case the other person will agree or nod their head

  2. Providing an opportunity for the other person to critique our understanding - incase we’ve missed something. Either of these options is good.

What exactly should be reflected back?

Core areas of reflection could be centred around reflecting back the other persons:

  • feelings

  • thoughts

  • facts or key points they’ve shared

You can start the reflective listening process with prompts. Prompts help segue into the conversation and are followed by what the other person has said to you. Following are nine examples of prompts and reflection:

  1. “It sounds like you’re feeling….quite excited about this new initiative that is about to start?”

  2. "Are you saying that you're feeling.....confused about which job to apply for?"

  3. "Can I check, are you feeling...not ready to make a decision and need more time to consider...?"

  4. "Help me to understand, are you thinking...if we both go together you would feel more supported?"

  5. "Did I hear correctly? Are your drive 8 hrs to Wellington, then catch the car ferry to Picton?"

  6. “So what you’re thinking is…..the procedure does not seem to be working the way we intended, and you want think we should revisit the guidelines?”

  7. "Are you wanting to....first set up a small emergency fund, then pay off outstanding debts and then start a savings plan?"

  8. “Let me see if I’ve understood…on the 21 January, sometime before midday, Mr Smith arrived at the office in a fairly distressed state?”

  9. "Are the key ideas want to take some pressure off and take time, not rush things, and let the situation unfold naturally?"

From here the other person is able to confirm or critique what they have heard.

In some instances when a person tells you a lot of points in one go, you can be left wondering what to reflect back. So its okay to reflect back just one point or reflect an overall summary of what you heard. For example:

  1. “Okay, it sounds like a lot has been happening around this situation. If I were to summarise you’re not sure what to do at this time?” Wait for confirmation from the other person, then follow with an open question.

  2. “Of the things you just shared with me, what would be the most important thing to resolve first?” The question being asked invites the other person to get specific about what they want.

  3. "There were several points I heard you mention, and generally, I notice you're feeling unhappy. Which point would help most to talk through now?"

Once you have practiced reflective listening, it becomes a natural fluid process. As you get good at this, you will not be concentrating so much on whether to reflect thoughts, feelings or facts. You will instinctively filter what to do.

Reflective listening is often coupled with asking a question (see examples 2 and 3 just above). It allows the other person to think through their situation and enables you to help them work towards a conclusion rather than cycle around in unuseful conversation. The better the question, the more information you will likely get.

I want to end by saying that reflective listening and asking good questions are among the most versatile and rapport-building communication tools you could ever learn. They fit into any conversation and are most often appropriate.

(This 5-min recording/slides below provide an overview of reflective listening. It is an older recording so please forgive the slow pace. I share it only as an introduction).

Reflective listening helps us to avoid communication roadblocks.

Thomas Gordon discovered through his research that certain communication behaviours can cause obstacles in communication between people. Twelve obstacles in particular are called roadblocks to communication. Essentially when used or overused in conversation, the recipient of the communication is inclined to limit their response, reduce their openness, shutdown or become defensive.

Unwanted solution and opinion giving:

  1. Ordering, Directing, Commanding the other person on what to do

  2. Warning, Threatening the other person will have a negative outcome, "You'll never get anywhere if you..."

  3. Moralising, Preaching "Patience is a virtue you should...." "You should not behave that way, you should behave like this..."

  4. Lecturing "I've told you before that if you...." "You should h

  5. Advising unwantedly "What you should do is..."

Making judgments

6. Blaming "You're always...."

7. Labelling, Shaming "You'll never be a provider with that income and no education." "That's just how your culture is, I wouldn't expect anything better."

8. Analysing, Diagnosing "You do that now because of how your parents were growing up."


9. Praising, Agreeing "You are excellent at everything."

10. Reassuring inappropriately, "Oh don't worry so much, trust me, everything will be fine,"

11. Diverting the other's attention as a way to distract, "


12. Probing inappropriately (in such a manner the other person feels overwhelmed or does not get to answer.

When used too often in communication or feedback, some of these roadblocks can feel 'loaded' and, therefore, difficult or overwhelming to hear, leading to a person's emotional temperature heightening and stress responses activating.

Reflective listening becomes a more useful and powerful relationship tool in personal and professional lives and can be used instead of the roadblocks to convey both everyday and important messages. It also helps to close the gaps of distance that can be created when we get caught in debate and conflict.

For example:

Scenario 1

"You're a really inconsiderate and arrogant driver. You need to slow down before you cause an accident and we get seriously hurt or break our necks!"

"Stop being such a drama queen, I've never had an accident before. Not planning to have one now!"

"I'm not being a drama queen! I feel unsafe. It's freaking me out! Stop the car I want to get out."

"Don't be stupid! I'm not stopping the car."

In this version, the conversation is loaded with roadblocks such as labelling, criticism, warning, and directing. Reflective listening is also not used and there is no effort to hear each other. Neither person in the relationship is being heard, acknowledged, or getting what they want. Emotional temperatures are also not reducing. There is plenty of opportunity for either person to be offended and to become defensive.


Scenario 1 - Using reflective listening

"I know you enjoy driving fast. When you drive over the speed limit, I feel very nervous and unsafe. Could you please slow down and stay within the limit?"

"You're feeling nervous and unsafe?"

"Yes. Please slow down."

"I'm sorry. It wasn't my intention for you to feel unsafe. Sure, I'll slow down."

"Thank you."

In this version, the initial statement is clear and respectful. It describes the behaviour in a concrete, observable way what is occurring ("driving over the speed limit"), followed by expressing the concrete effect on how they feel about it ("I feel nervous and unsafe"). Then, a request is made ("slow down, stay within the limit"). The statement is not loaded with criticism and warnings. The reflective response focuses on the key points (the partner is feeling nervous and unsafe). In this scenario the communication is clear, respectful and caring. Each person is working towards an amicable outcome.

I-Messages or I-Statements

In work and personal relationships, it is very useful to convey one's own feelings and emotions respectfully. I-messages (or I-statements) are a way of doing this, particularly if you are feeling unhappy and want to solve a problem. The I-message is structured so that the message is clearly sent. The recipient still may not want to hear the message, but it will be clear and direct, lean on the use of facts, and reduce the emotional charge and heavy hammer otherwise common when judgements, mindreading, opinions and other roadblocks are used. I-Messages help to convey your own experience of what is occurring and how you feel about it, expressing your need, the outcome you want opposed to the blame on the other person. I-Messages do not focus on who is right or wrong, who is the victim or the persecutor, but works towards the problem being solved.

  • Identify and state the observable concrete behaviour (what is seen, heard or physically touched). By being factual, the other person will likely agree what you have said is true. "When you drive over the speed limit..."

  • Name the impact or result of that behaviour. "I worry there will be an accident and get a sick feeling in my stomach."

  • Describe how you feel as a result. "I feel very unsafe as a result."

  • Describe what your preference is. "I want you to slow down and stay within the road limit."

Scenario 2 - Example of an I-Message being used through a conversation

"You're always interrupting me and it drives me crazy. I never get to finish what I want to say. Everything becomes about you."

"What are you going on about? I need you to hurry up. Sometimes you take so long to get things out that I don't have time to sit around and wait all day. I just need you to be quick as I have other plans today.

"Arrghh. That's really rude. Why do I bother!"

The other person shrugs their shoulders and nods their head from side to side, and waits.

"Okay, I will start again. I am trying to tell you what I need so that I can plan our trip. When you interrupt me midsentence repeatedly (four times)......I have to stop and restart and I don't get what I need from you. There is a lot for us to consider for this trip. I am left feeling frustrated and unheard. What I need is an hour of your time, and not be interrupted midsentence so that I can cover everything off.

"Alright fair enough. I hear your frustration. I'll try not to interrupt, though I'm sure it wasn't four times. Discussing this now doesn't work for me as I have heaps to do. Can we sit down tonight after dinner and talk through this?"

"Well it means I can't book flights today, but tonight after dinner will still work. I'll book everything tomorrow instead."

"Okay. Thanks."

The I-Message removes numerous roadblocks, and sends a clear statement about the behaviour, impact, feelings and needs. While it doesn't undo emotive communication said earlier in the conversation, it does reduce the force of emotional heat that sometimes erupts when heated communication escalates.

A combination of reflective listening, asking questions and I-Messages can be powerful (and empowering) in relationships.


John Gottmans research highlights an important rule that before you ask your partner to change the way he or she does something, you first work towards your partner feeling that you are understanding. If either feels judged, misunderstood or rejected by the other, it will be difficult to manage challenges in the relationship. Start with practicising rapport skills, listening, reflective listening and being aware of communication roadblocks.


Adams, M. (10 Aug, 2015). Warning: Communication Roadblocks Can be Hazardous to Your Relationships.

Bolstad, R. (2004). Transforming Communication: Leading Edge Professional and Personal Skills. [Paperback]. Pearson Education New Zealand.

Bolstad, R. (2014). Transforming Communication: The Manual. [Kindle Edition].

Gordon Training. (N.D). The Roadblocks to Communication: The complete list. [Website].

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