The Power of Listening

Reflective listening is a rare skill. But it feels so good when we are on the receiving end of a skilled listener. Being reflectively listened to helps us to shift out of a stuck place. It helps us feel hopeful and energized to move forward in problem-solving.

Everybody talks, who listens?

In a loud and talkative world, listening has become a lost art. Magazine articles and books on business, relationships, and parenting stress the importance of communication skills. We are all eager to say our part, give our opinion, or share our ideas. The other side of that equation is listening – arguably the most important part of communication. Listening is the key to successfully influencing others. After all, isn’t that why we want to communicate in the first place! 

Racket Feelings

Racket feelings are substitute feelings and are roadblocks to communication. In every family, there are stories about the rules about feelings. All kids are quick learners and quickly adapt to the family rules about what feelings are acceptable to express, and which they better stuff down. ‘Here comes a sad sack – why don’t you put on your happy face’?  These parents are making it clear that it is unacceptable to be sad. This happens because often these parents feel like a failure if their kids aren’t happy!

Some parents act like it is more acceptable to be angry than it is to be sad. Others, like the sad-sack family, teach that instead of allowing ourselves to feel sad, fake it with happiness. Happiness can’t be faked. Parents teach kids to substitute a natural feeling for another feeling that is not natural, given the circumstances. These are how feelings are taught to be substituted.  In the substitution, a person loses touch with the ‘real’ original feeling. The original feeling was the appropriate response to the situation. 

Rackets in Organizations

Racket feelings are alive and well in organizations. The colleague who smiles while telling about losing a client, or not getting the well-deserved recognition for a job well done is demonstrating a ‘happy’ racket. The boss who gets angry with impatience when a deadline is looming is very likely covering their fear of failure with anger and impatience. 

When people are ‘running a racket’, they think they are protecting themselves from the negative reactions of a long-ago parent by not feeling their authentic feelings. In the process, they are also setting up their own failure with poor problem-solving and confused or justifying ways of thinking. In Transactional Analysis language, when we are feeling a racket feeling, or acting with a racket behavior, we are in our Adapted Child or Critical Parent Ego State – we are in the past, not the present. These are roadblocks to effective communication.

Reflective listening can shift the conversation

So what do you do when someone is in a racket feeling? How can you help them shift into authentic feelings and eventually into a place of effective problem-solving?

The answer is Reflective Listening. Reflective listening is a component of a model called Motivational Interviewing. It involves carefully listening to the other person and reflecting back what they say. You can do this in multiple ways – by repeating back exactly what they say, paraphrasing it, rephrasing it or using a complex reflection. The key to reflective listening is to listen to the other with the intent of understanding, not with the intent to respond. This is done by use reflective statements, and minimizing how many questions you ask.

The problem is the other’s to solve. Your job is to listen – the very best option if you want to help someone solve their own problems. Anyone can have an answer, very few foster answers in others. 

Reflective Listening is Nurturing Parent in Action

When we reflectively listen, we are operating from our Nurturing Parent Ego State. We are taking the time and energy to really listen to what the other is saying, not just with their words, but also with their face, their body, their pace of breathing. This kind of listening is a way to practice what we call a ‘Nurturing Parent’ cross.

Racket feelings come from Critical Parent or Adapted Child. To invite someone out of these Ego States, we use our Nurturing Parent and address it to their Natural Child.  With each of these transactions, the other is more likely to think more clearly about what they are saying and engage their Adult. The Adult Ego State has clear thinking for solving problems by generating options and then deciding on one to take action on. 

Reflective listening is a powerful skill – the potency of engaging the skills that reside in the Nurturing Parent Ego State.