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“Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.” Cuban proverb [article]

This article looks reflective listening. A skill that means you can 'really' listen to your client. We also look at why it's so important and how to do it.


A friend joined a gym a while ago. She had a very friendly instructor take her through a screening in their first session. While the instructor made a great first impression, unfortunately it all went pear-shaped when they got to goal setting.


Instructor: “So what do you want to achieve?”


My friend: “When I exercise I feel good. My energy levels increase, I sleep better, I feel fitter and a lot better about myself. If I lose a bit of weight then that’s an added bonus”.


Here is where it went wrong:


Instructor: “So your number one goal is to lose weight”


How would you feel in this situation? Understandably my friend was a little taken aback.  Her initial reaction (as mine would have been) was:

1) Are you saying I need to lose weight?

2) The instructor isn’t listening to me.


The great rapport that had developed was destroyed. My friend was slightly offended and definitely no longer interested in the rest of the screening.


This article will look at a skill called reflective listening. We will look at what reflective listening is. Why it’s important and how to do it. Once we can reflectively listen well we can guarantee we avoid the mistake above.


What is reflective listening?


Reflective listening is a communication style that focuses on a method known as reflection. The listener can clarify what the client is saying by reflecting back what they have just heard.


There are three levels of reflective listening. As a beginner it is safest to start at level one and move to the other levels as you become confident. Below is an example of the three levels in action.


Client: “Summer is coming and I’m not happy going to the beach”.


Level 1

Repeat/Rephrase: The fitness professional repeats or summarises the client’s words; staying close to what the client has said.

“You’re feeling unhappy about going to the beach this summer”.


Level 2

Paraphrase: The fitness professional restates the client’s words and states the underlying meaning or what the client was trying to say.

“You would like to feel comfortable and confident on the beach”.


Level 3

Reflect feeling: The fitness professional emphasises the emotions. Stating what they heard as the client’s feelings – the deepest form of listening

“It sounds like you feel embarrassed by your appearance”.


Why is reflective listening so important?

Reflective listening can feel a little strange to begin with. It can feel like you are playing the repeating game that really annoyed your brother as a child…”stop  copying me”…”stop copying me”. So in order to get past that, it is useful to know why it is so important. Reflective listening is vital for 3 reasons:


1) It lets a client know they are being listened to:

If a client knows you are really listening, they feel like you care. As a result they are much more likely to open up and share what really brought them in to see you.


2) It can help the client to clarify their thoughts and come to their own solutions:

Have you heard the saying “As I hear what I speak I learn what I believe”? Clients often aren’t entirely sure of their motives when they walk through the door. By repeating back to them both what they say and more importantly the emotions that they are showing, this can help them clarify what they really want and why.


3) It allows the fitness professional to check that they understood the client properly:

We all interpret information differently. Remember the quote at the start, “Every head is a world” we can’t assume we know what is happening in a client’s world. Reflective listening allows us to check that we really understand what our client is saying. It means we avoid the mistake made by the instructor at the start of this article.


Now have a go

Here is a little quiz intended to build your skill in reflective listening:

A client, Jack Phillips, strolls into the gym for his 7am session and greets you as follows:

Jack: “I don’t see the point of this personal training thing any more. I’m not getting any results and I’m too busy anyway.”

Which of the possible responses listed below would represent reflective listening and which would not?

  1. Hang in there: I'm sure it will work out eventually
  2. Well have you been following your nutrition plan?
  3. So you’re not sure about personal training anymore
  4. You're angry that you aren’t getting the results you were looking for
  5. We can do shorter sessions if you’re short of time
  6. So work is really busy


Now that you know what reflective listening is and how to do it, the next step is to actually try it. Start with people you know, friends and family. It may feel awkward at first, but persevere. Before you know it, you’ll be a natural.