An iceberg is mostly submerged – water is less dense in its solid form than as a liquid. In fact, 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 as a manager may or may not represent the full scope of what is really going on emotionally within an individual or team. Typically, a presenting statement (for example, “I am not going to stay in this department 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.

Part of the problem here is that most of us are not well trained to listen more deeply than just “hearing” 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 manager, in the above-mentioned example, can possibly make a suggestive reflective statement, like: “So, there are issues in this department that are really bothering you at the moment” – this statement allows the employee the possibility of agreeing or disagreeing and in the latter case, perhaps even qualifying the statement further, e.g. “No, the issues are making me really angry”. Again, the manager can respond reflectively: “It seems that you are really mad about the issues you face, or maybe one of the bosses, or maybe even some of your colleagues?” Here, the manager is not trying to convince, but rather to understand why the staff member is so upset. The manager 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 (note here, the manager should pause the conversation if the employee says the problem lies with his/her relationship with another leader – the conversation should be deferred to a time outside of the meeting parameters where a conversation could be conducted in private and hopefully with the mentioned manager present).

There are two cautionary notes here:

  1. Slow down – because emotion can create discomfort in the environment (embarrassment, anxiety, anger and other related emotions), many managers want to get done with the conversation quickly. When emotion is present, managers must slow down and create a safe space for the debriefing of the emotional content.
  2. Be sincere – insincere reflective listening is perceived easily and will break down any form of trust that may have existed prior to the conversation.

True communication skills and relational effectiveness for the manager recognise 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.

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