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What is the Key to Healthy Communication?

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

Healthy communication is essential to relationship satisfaction and sustainability. While many of us know that listening is important, we may not have a firm grasp on what healthy listening looks like. In my professional experience working with couples, I believe that the most important communication skill is Reflective Listening (“RL”). In this post I will define RL, explain why it is important, describe what it can help you achieve, and share a simple way to communicate more effectively.

What is Reflective Listening and Why is it Important?

RL means “paying respectful attention to the content and feelings being expressed, letting the other person know they are being heard and understood, and responding actively to the speaker” (Katz & McNulty, 1994, p.1). Many clients share that while listening to someone, they are thinking about how they will respond after the speaker is done talking. When this happens, they miss out on important parts of the speaker’s message. RL helps solve this problem because it means that we are paying close attention to what the speaker is saying and how they are saying it. After the speaker is done talking, we share (reflect) our interpretation of what they communicated. For example, if Jane shares that she had a long and stressful day at work, John may reflect “It sounds like you were really busy at work today and didn’t have much downtime.” This demonstrates to the speaker that they have been heard. It also gives them the opportunity to correct us if they feel that our interpretation of their message was inconsistent with the way they intended it.

Without reflective listening we may perceive the speaker’s message different from their intention, also known as a communication gap, which leads to inaccurate assumptions and misunderstandings.

What is the Goal of Reflective Listening?

When I think about reflective listening a phrase from contract law pops into my head: “Meeting of the Minds.” This phrase describes a common understanding of parties entering into a contractual agreement. Courts in some jurisdictions consider a “Meeting of the Minds,” a condition to the requirement of an enforceable contract.

So, what does this legal phrase have to do with reflective listening? Well, I encourage my couples to strive for a “Meeting of the Minds” when communicating. In other words, the goal of RL is to gain a common understanding of our partner’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Put another way, we should listen to understand our partner rather than respond.

The Power of Examples to Facilitate Better Reflections

One way to bridge the communication gap, is by providing examples.

For example, if Jane is frustrated with John because he has not completed household tasks as he said he would, she could provide examples of the specific tasks that John forgot to do.

When describing ideas to your partner, consider using examples to facilitate understanding. For example, if John suggests that he and Jane create a shared calendar to organize their schedules, he could share examples of calendars that other couples have used.

For describing concepts, use examples to help define them. For example, Jane may suggest that she and John should collaborate more, which sounds like a worthwhile goal. However, Jane’s definition of and experiences with collaboration could be different than John’s. In this case, if Jane can provide concrete examples of what collaboration means to her, she can reduce the chances that there will be a misunderstanding of the concept. When examples are provided, it makes it easier for the other person to understand and reflect with greater accuracy.

Wrapping Up

When you utilize reflective listening, you demonstrate to your partner that you are paying attention. And that can go a long way.

So, let’s get started – call Symmetry Counseling today at 312-578-9990 to get paired with a counselor in Chicago.


Katz, N. & McNulty, K. (1994). “Reflective Listening”

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