This communication exercise is designed to teach people how to really listen to someone. It is an exercise that helps practice reflective listening, which is a skill that is very commonly used in counseling, but that can also help people vastly improve their relationships. While this type of exercise is nothing new in the field of counseling, relationships, or communication, I have never seen it before displayed in a flowchart format, which I believe can (at least for some people) help them visually grasp the concept and quickly began applying it.
While this exercise can seem slow and tedious, it can provide a foundation for amazingly effective communication skills that can be used to understand and connect with your spouse, partner, children, relatives, friends, coworkers, and anyone else who plays a role in your life. Doing this exercise is a bit like practicing basic musical scales on the piano, or basic dance steps without music. Once learned and mastered, you will be able to practice the essence of the exercise without following the format exactly, and your communication will be more elegant and precise, like a well choreographed waltz or flawless concerto.
Reflective listening works because it ensures that one person’s subjective reality is accurately decoded by another person. Most of the time when we listen, we simply say, “yeah, I get you” or “sure, I understand completely.” But do we really understand? Much of the time, we don’t. We make assumptions about what the person meant by their words, but their words were filtered through our own lens of knowledge and past experience. Once you begin doing the exercise, you will see what I mean, because your communication partner has to confirm that you understood them correctly. Every time we talk to someone, we are actually merely guessing what they mean. In this exercise, your guesses are checked for accuracy by the other person until the guesses are correct.
In this exercise, you are simply listening and trying to understand the other. You are not trying to problem solve yet. Problem-solving will come in good time. In fact, what tends to happen as you come to truly understand the other person is that many of the problems dissolve on their own, or creative solutions are spontaneously reached during the process. However, it is important to refrain from arguing or trying to solve problems until both people feel 100% understood by the other.
Apart from understanding each other, an additional benefit of this exercise is an increase in differentiation within both individuals. Differentiation is defined as “the ability to maintain one’s own thoughts and feelings while respecting the other’s thoughts and feelings, and still remaining connected to the other person.” Differentiation is a central goal of counseling, and is a core and vital life skill. Through this exercise, communication partners experience a connection to each other while they simultaneously learn about differences in each others’ perceptions.
I think this type of exercise is especially useful and important for couples who are experiencing conflict. I believe that many couples who are in counseling would not need it if they were able to master this exercise.
Feel free to print or modify this flowchart for use in your private life or in your counseling practice.