A Guide for Reflective Listening

Regina is a Certified Integrative Health and Wellness Coach (IHWC) with the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine where she also received a Wellness & Lifestyle Series certification. Regina earned her bachelor degrees in Anthropology and Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh where she also minored in Religious Studies and Chemistry. Additionally, she has completed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training and studied abroad in Uttarakhand, India.

Regina is interested in questions of wholeness, care, and insight. Her goal is to find resonance, to live experiences that are deep, full, and reverberating.  She has a gift for building bridges and navigating complexity. She is interested in the connections between inner and outer worlds and what it means to live well; questions of spiritual care (encouraging the vital and sacred) are close to her center. Currently, she is using these skills to help people create meaningful behavior change, aligning their lives and their values, for grounded wellbeing. Her current offerings include one on one coaching sessions, wellness articles, and social media content. You can find her on Instagram @wellspring_coaching or contact her at regina.wellspringcoaching@gmail.com

Attending to the “Me Space” for an Open “We Space”

“For to listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” Mark Nepo

 Reflective listening is less about collecting facts and more about paying attention to complexity and the spaces that resist being reduced: it is about being capable of holding uncertainty and practicing connection. It is about walking alongside and stewarding stories. You start with attending to the “me space” so that the “we space” can be open.

We are tempted to project our inner world onto others. When we project, we cloud the “we space” and close the container. The work here is to be able to see another person without projecting ourselves onto them; the goal is to keep a lot of space in the conversation. According to Brené Brown, narrative takeover and narrative tap-out are the greatest threats to story stewardship. Narrative takeover is when we seize ownership of a story that isn’t ours and make it about us and our perception. Narrative tap out is when we shut down when we experience discomfort or disinterest. In order to steward each other’s story and listen, we have to build trust. Tapping out, taking over, and projecting break trust. It is our job to grow our awareness of these behaviors so that we can keep the “we space” clear and take good care of each other.

Tending “Me Space”: Coming from the Right Head & Heart Space

The first step towards song is getting yourself in the right head and heart space. This comes from tuning into your inner teacher and practicing humility. Connection is a partnership: you and the person you are connecting with are engaging in a collaboration, one where you each are striving to bring what is sacred inside of you to the life of the world. 

According to Parker Palmer, you attend the “me space” by:

  • Relaxing and Looking Gently with Your Inner Eye
  • Watching your Breath
  • Not Grasping for Every Word
  • Becoming Quiet Inside and Listening with Your Deepest Self, with Your Heart
  • Standing Back for a Moment and Becoming Calm
  • Pushing less, Opening Your Heart, and Being Aware of Yourself
  • Listening Quietly and Softly rather than Listening Hard Only to the Words.

You are of service to another when you practice skilled mastery (not dominance) of your inner world and show up authentically in the outer world. You notice what comes up for you and choose to respond instead of react. You show up with willingness and openness: you practice humility.

“The further you go, the more it comes back to paying attention… Staying close to the texture of things. People can go before you and talk all they want, but only one thing makes sense: the way the world enters and finds its voice in you: the place you are free.” Andrew Colliver

Deep Respect & Humility

Part of the human condition is being able to access our own deep & complex inner worlds while not having that same accessibility to inner world of another. We cannot know another human soul as deeply as we know our own, and so, we have to respect the fact that the soul of another being has a particular wisdom and is best served by respecting and witnessing it than it is by being advised or fixed or saved. Our work is to deeply bow to the souls around us from our own deep well.

“Unconditional love says, ‘I choose to respect your freedom to make your choices and decisions even if I don’t like them.’ Conditional love says, ‘I will grant you freedom to make your own choices and decisions as long as they serve me and my agenda in some way.’ The former is true freedom, the later is control.” Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. & Heatherash Amara

Heather Plett writes, “Humility consistently reminds you that your role is not to control or direct but to hold the space for another person’s discovery, to acknowledge their capacity to find their own solutions in the process… Humility helps you recognize that the other person is usually better served if you listen rather than talk; that in helping them to figure out their own answers, sometimes even all your years of expertise may not be of use.” You hold an open we space when you respect the soul of another being and its power and sovereignty.

Practicing Acceptance

Tending the “we space” comes from practicing acceptance. Carl Rogers recognized four aspects of acceptance: absolute worth, accurate empathy, autonomy support, and affirmation.

Absolute Worth is accepting the inherent worth and potential in every human being and knowing this is unconditional. Each and every one of us has a wild and precious life, and we can recognize that other beings are separate from us while existing in a web of interconnectedness. We practice absolute worth by remaining free from judging other people’s worthiness.

Accurate Empathy is taking an active interest in and making an effort to understand another person’s internal perspective. According to Theresa Wiseman, there are five attributes of empathy. They include:

  1. Perspective taking: What does that concept mean for you? What is that experience like for you? 
  2. Staying out of Judgement: Just listen, don’t put value on it.
  3. Recognizing emotion: How can I touch within myself something that helps me identify and connect with what the other person might be feeling? Check in and clarify what you are hearing. Ask questions.
  4. Communicating our Understanding about the Emotion: Sometimes this is elaborate and detailed, and sometimes this is simply, “Sh**. That’s hard. I get that.”
  5. Practicing Mindfulness (from Kristin Neff): This is not pushing away emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it. 

Also, according to Wiseman, we can cultivate empathy by: remaining curious and nonjudgmental, listening to the story and the emotional needs that lie beneath, discovering and softening our own hidden biases, delighting in commonalities and honoring and respecting differences, revealing feelings and vulnerabilities, remaining trustworthy and reliable, and remembering we are all in this together and trying our best.

Autonomy Support is honoring and respecting that every person has the right and capacity of self-direction. It is recognizing that within our core, we have a true self who knows what is best for each of us, and that deep being is wiser than any external advisor. To claim autonomy and sovereignty means each person has the right to self-govern and gets to decide what happens to their body, their heart, their mind, and their spirit. Sovereignty is what we offer to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary crossing.

 Affirmation is the intentional acknowledgement of a person’s strengths and values. Acknowledgment is glue – it confirms that we are seeing and hearing the person in front of us. Affirmation is what you offer when you recognize and reflect back the value and strength you witnessed in the other person. Hearing your inner qualities reflected back at you helps you to bring them into the outer world.

Specific Skills for Reflective Listening: 

There are specific skills that help you with the above principles, such as active listening, asking honest open questions, and giving reflections, acknowledgements, and affirmations.

Active Listening

Active listening (also called conscious listening) is devoting your attention to the person in front of you. You are focused on hearing and understanding exactly what the other person is saying in the current moment. It is the practice of preparing to listen, observing the verbal and non-verbal messages being sent, hearing without formulating your response, and then responding in a way that portrays your attentiveness. 

You do this by focusing your attention: quiet your inner space, settle into the moment, and really see the person in front of you. Who are they? What is their soul saying? Lean in. Pay attention to what this person is trying to communicate: what are they saying with their words? With their body and voice tone? Listen without crafting what you are going to say in response. When they are done speaking, you can show your attunement through asking open questions, reflecting, acknowledging, or affirming what they have said.

Ask yourself:

  • What has this person said?
  • What do they mean?
  • How do they feel about this?
  • How does this affect how they think or feel about themselves or their world?

Honest Open Questions 

“A question is a mighty use of words.” Krista Tippett

People have within them much of what they need. Your task is to evoke it. When you ask questions, you want to do so with an open and honest spirit. You want to be present with an unbiased mind, ready to learn, rather than have the knowledge-filled mind of someone who thinks they have all the answers. Practice being in tune with your intention behind your questions. 

Asking a question pulls for a cognitive response: it engages the analytical task brain. A closed question is a question that can be answered with a yes or no or very few words, and it requires the least amount of exploration to answer. Closed questions are questions where we can normally guess the answer and they serve to fix the other in place, they are directive more than reflective. An example of a closed question is: did you have a good day at school?

Alternatively, open questions pull for more context and stories. An open question is a question that requires a longer and more dynamic response. These are the questions that cause the inner doors to swing open. They require people access their experiences, and they are more collaborative than closed questions. They facilitate stories. An honest question, according to Parker Palmer, is one I can ask without possibly being able to say to myself, ‘I know the right answer to this question, and I sure hope you give it to me.’ An example of an open question is: what surprised you about school today?

 If you are going to ask questions, you want to use the questions that engage the most open-minded brain, the ones that allow for deeper reflection and participation.

 It takes seven seconds for a person to answer a difficult question. When we ask honest and open questions, we also have to be comfortable giving people the space to explore their experiences for answers. This means being comfortable with thoughtful silences. If we cut people off or need to fill the ‘we space’ too soon, we fail to have conversations that are safe for the soul to show up. Being a good listener requires holding space for silence.

Reflections, Acknowledgements, & Affirmations

“If you attend reverently and listen tenderly, you will be given the words that are needed.” John O’Donohue 

A powerful tool for connection through listening are reflections: you reflect what you heard the person say back to them as a statement. There are different types of reflections: simple reflections, complex reflections, acknowledgements, and affirmations.

A simple reflection paraphrases and summarizes content: you say back what was said to you. A complex reflection reflects what was said as well as imparts the underlying emotions and meanings of what was said. Complex reflections also include double-sided reflections which reflect back two sides of an issue. An acknowledgement is a reflection that affirms the other person’s strengths or values, help people to hear good things about themselves and see their positive traits. Affirmations are reflections that agree or concur with what was said. They reflect what was said to you while also communicating your agreement/shared opinion. 

When you reflect what was said to you, you show that you were paying attention in a deep way. You engage with a clear mind and open heart with humility and a willingness to witness the person in front of you. This is an act of connection – a practice of your listening skills and a reverence of approach. You show up.

Building Worlds of Love 

Your attention is your most precious resource. When you use it to listen, to tend the ‘me space’ and open the ‘we space,’ we feel seen, heard, and valued. We are connected. And that is where the love is. When you listen within and without an agenda, you reflect and acknowledge, you ask open and honest questions… imagine the worlds waiting to be built in this way of connection – the songful, coherent, worlds that shimmer. 

“a real conversation
free from projection
and ego-flexing
is a special gift
most do not talk to listen:
they talk to be heard
self-awareness, selflessness,
and a real desire to listen
are required for mutually authentic
and honest exchange”

-Yung Pueblo


Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

The Seven Secrets to Healthy, Happy Relationships by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr & Heatherash Amara 

Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser

The Art of Holding Space by Heather

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett 

Life Beside Itself by Lisa Stevenson

A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer

Clarity & Connection by Yung Pueblo 

The Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine