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  • Writer's pictureJuliana

The Reason For Reflection

In Nonviolent Communication, people practice something called reflection when giving empathy to others. Basically, this is when someone repeats back what they are hearing another person say, usually in a shortened, paraphrased manner. It is a fairly integral part of the process of giving empathy, but I fear the reasoning behind this practice isn't always clear to NVC practitioners, at least in their early learning stages.

So why is reflection important? The answer to that is two-fold.

The first reason, and maybe the most obvious reason, is to give the other person a sense of being heard. For many people, when they hear someone else saying what they just shared in some form, they have a sense of reassurance that that person is actually listening to them. Additionally, if the conversation is within a charged context of conflict, hearing one's own words repeated back to them can have a calming and disarming effect.

Obviously, this is not always true for every person in every situation. I have met a handful of people in my time teaching NVC whom do not enjoy hearing their words reflected back to them. They find it annoying and tedious, usually because they have a deep need for effectiveness and stimulation in a conversation. They would rather just assume that the other person is listening and "gets" them, then move on with the conversation and hear a response rather than a reflection. I can understand this perspective fully, however, there is a second reason for reflection that I think might even be more important than the first. And foregoing reflection with the assumption that the other person understands you robs you of the other benefit of reflection:


The second reason that reflection is important is for clarity for the listener. This is the reason that I think most people overlook when learning this process. Often, when we listen to others, we hear the words that they say, but we make mental leaps in our minds about what those words mean. Sometimes those leaps land at least in the arena of truth; but sometimes they are so far off that two people in one conversation can end up talking about completely different things in a matter of seconds. When this happens, there's obviously a disconnection and, dare I say it, a failure in communication, which, at best ends up being a hilarious sitcom-worthy moment, and at worst can ruin a relationship.

Here is one simple example of these mental leaps (one that is probably on the less detrimental side of the scale):

Scenario: Alex and Taylor are colleagues working on a project together.

Alex: Hey, Taylor, I won't be able to make it to the meeting this afternoon. Could you represent our team and update me afterward? I have a doctor's appointment that I can't reschedule.

Taylor: Sure thing. Take care!

Later that day, Taylor updates Alex after the meeting.

Taylor: The meeting went well, and I presented our progress. Everyone understood our contributions and they are wishing you well.

Alex: Great, thanks for handling it! By the way, I'm sorry for not making it clear earlier. The doctor's appointment was for a routine check-up, nothing serious.

Taylor: Oh, I assumed it was something urgent or concerning since you mentioned you couldn't reschedule it.

In this situation, if Taylor had done any reflection early on in the conversation, he might have said something like, "It sounds like you aren't feeling well and you have a doctor's appointment regarding something urgent that's going on for you". If he had, it is likely that Alex would have corrected him and told him what was actually going on for her. You could imagine other actions precipitating from this assumption, like getting the office together to send Alex a "get well soon" gift basket with a card; or worse, the company might even take Alex off of some projects, or not choose her for projects thinking that the lighter workload would be welcomed considering her urgent medical needs. Now, the latter example might seem extreme, but it is not out of the realm of possibility when it comes to things that could happen when two people are not on the same page in a conversation.

So reflection is for both the person on the receiving end of empathy to have a sense of being heard, but it is also equally (if not more) beneficial for the party doing the reflecting so that they are clear on what reality is. This is not to say that reflection is necessary in every single interaction, because that would be exhausting and indeed tedious (my judgments). Here are a couple rules of thumb that I like to use:

  1. If the person I'm talking to is sharing something at least marginally important to them, I will reflect because I am sensing that they want to be heard on whatever it is they are sharing (this goes for "bad" situations as well as "good" ones). Think when a friend is venting, when you're in a conflict situation with someone, or when someone talking to you is experiencing "extreme" emotions.

  2. If I have any doubt at all about what the person is saying, I will reflect, usually with the preface of "I just want to make sure I'm understanding you correctly. What you're saying is..."

And if you are ever in doubt about whether or not someone would appreciate reflection, you can always just ask! Here are some ways to do that:

  • "Would you like any reflection on what you just shared?" (This is one that I tend to only use with people who are at least somewhat familiar with NVC and they know what I'm talking about).

  • "Do you mind if I reflect a little bit of what I just heard you say?"

  • "I really want to make sure I'm accurately picking up everything you are sharing. Would it be okay with you if I reflect a little bit of what I think you're saying for my own clarity?"

If you are interested in deepening your understanding of reflection, the empathy process, and/or NVC in general, please check out The Bigbie Method's Intro to NVC Course. These concepts are explored in depth within the course.

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