Or improve your chances of landing the job of your dreams?
Or become more well-liked socially?
There is a very simple conversational tactic you can use, which will help you accomplish these goals. You know what it is. But chances are, you are not using it enough.
The idea is to use “reflective listening” in conversations more than you currently do.
What’s that? It’s merely reflecting back what the person you are talking with is saying, feeling, aspiring, or worrying about.
For example, when your lunch partner says, “The energy stocks got hammered again today; my firm insists on staying long the sector, but I feel it’s time to go in another direction,” you could reflect by saying, “It sounds like you had a hard day; and you feel trapped on a boat that’s going in the wrong direction.” Your lunch partner will say “EXACTLY!” and will appreciate that you cared enough, and were confident enough, to reflect their emotions.
That’s better than lecturing your friend by offering a premature solution off the cuff like, “Well you should leave then.”
And it’s better than saying something competitive like, “Well I have been predicting further declines in energy this past year and I’ve been right.”
And it’s way better than ignoring your lunch partner’s turmoil and talking about something else on your mind like “Cheer up—hey did you catch the football game last night?”
Why is reflection so powerful? Because reflecting what you hear someone saying makes the other person feel like you are not only respectful and attentive, but that you are empathetic and that you are willing to put yourself in their shoes.
It’s a sign of loyalty. It’s a sign of respectful understanding. It’s a powerful way of showing “I’m here for you.”
So how is that supposed to make me more persuasive or land my dream job or become more well-liked socially? Because people who feel that you understand them, and that you are an ally in helping them get what they want (in work and life) are much more likely to listen to your persuasive idea, or hire you for the job of your dreams, or want to spend time with you socially.
Reflecting is not asking new probing questions (which lots of strategy consultants, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals do all too often). Probing questions are not at all related to what the person just said. Probing questions are like “What was revenue last year?” Or “Who is the person who needs to sign this contract?” Probing questions get you data you seek to advance your agenda.
In contrast, reflecting is meeting the person where they are. It’s furthering the conversation on a topic that is important to them. Reflecting is easier to do, way more powerful, and is more about building trust and mutual understanding than it is about collecting details.
What are some more examples of reflecting? To me, reflecting is just simply repeating back statements, and the emotions behind them, that the other person is saying. Some more examples are:
- It sounds like what is most important to you is_____________?
- So what you really want is _____________?
- So, to clarify, you much prefer _____________ to _____________. Yes?
- When _____________ happened, it made you feel _____________(relieved, irritated, frustrated, confused, helpless, emboldened, super angry, let down, useful, valuable, on the path to success).
- I think you are saying that what concerns you about doing _____________ is _____________. Is that about right?
The consequences of doing _____________ are _____________ is what you are getting at, correct?
How did you learn about this? I didn’t learn this simple reflective listening tactic from a book, class, or seminar. The best training experience was when I was a suicide hotline volunteer in grad school. My fellow students and I knew nothing. We were not psychologists yet. Our only tool to help people decide to not commit suicide was to do a great job reflecting what they were saying, to genuinely empathize and understand, and to help them sort out what they really wanted, what their concerns were, and what a reasonable next step might be. I never “talked someone off a ledge” literally speaking. But I do believe that there was something deeply meaningful for folks in feeling heard. And to have a partner to sort out the “noise” of competing goals, concerns, thoughts, and feelings is a great gift.
One of my colleagues the other day told me that she successfully used to use this skill when she counseled undergraduates in the dorm when she was a resident assistant. She remembered how powerful this tactic was in that context, and she wondered out loud if she should use it more in the context of advising boards and CEOs. I shared with her my experience that people all too often assume boards and CEOs just want to talk about numbers and facts and strategies and plans. But it’s super lonely at the top. And board members and CEOs, as much as anybody else, love to feel heard and understood. It’s as important, if not more important, for building trust than just having your ducks in a row and dazzling them with a big PowerPoint deck, or a 20-tab Excel spreadsheet. At the highest levels, the power of human-to-human reflection is even more valuable than the power of disciplined data analysis.
So I encouraged my colleagues, as I am encouraging you, to try to dial up the reflective listening in your professional and personal conversations.
Watch the other person light up. And see how much more powerful you feel in persuading someone to take action (e.g. to follow your proposal, or to hire you for your dream job) in a work context. And watch how much more people seem to like you and gravitate towards you socially when you make the genuine effort to reflect. They will love your reflection!