What would you do if your 10 year old daughter or son came home from school one day and announced: “I’m not going to school anymore!”? You would be dumbfounded, of course, but then you may do what countless parents do worldwide – try to convince the child to think differently and perhaps decide that it’s worth going to school after all. Parents use phrases like: “everyone goes to school”, or “do you not want to go to university one day?” or “how are you going to grow a career if you don’t finish your schooling?” – using a logical approach to convince the child of the merits of attending and doing well at school. What if the child is being abused or bullied? In these circumstances, no logic or convincing techniques make sense any more. In fact, if this was the case with my child, I would take the child out of school and not leave him/her there to endure being picked on.
Part of the problem here is that we are not well trained to listen more deeply than the presenting statement – we superficially hear what is being said without digging to find out the real issues behind that which is verbalised. Reflective listening helps us to dig deeper. The father or mother could have made a suggestive reflective statement, like: “So, school is really bothering you at the moment” – this statement allows the child the possibility of agreeing or disagreeing and in the latter case, perhaps even qualifying the statement further, e.g. “No, school is making me really angry”. Again, the parent could have responded reflectively: “It seems that you are really mad at school, or maybe one of your teachers, or maybe even some of your friends?” Here, the parent is not trying to convince, but rather to understand why the child is so upset. The parent is “digging deeper” to get to the bottom of the anger or rage or disillusionment. The solution over time will probably self-present, but not before the emotion has been examined and resolved. All emotion needs resolution and leaders need to provide the environment where this becomes possible.
An iceberg is mostly submerged – about six-sevenths of an iceberg is under the water level, with only one-seventh above the surface. It is similarly true of many presenting statements – what you initially hear may or may not represent the full scope of what is really going on emotionally within an individual. Typically, a presenting statement (for example, “I am not going to school anymore”) has a mine-field of other emotions not yet revealed – at the initial stage, still hidden, until the environment is safe enough to reveal what is truly going on. Once the context is safe, other emotions may slowly surface until, eventually, the whole issue is laid bare on the table.
True communication skill and relational effectiveness recognises the possibility of emotional layers within a communication framework – understanding that the human being is emotional and usually does not reveal all that is felt until the context is conducive to openness and transparency. Reflective listening can leverage the dialogue to new levels of transparency and closeness.