How to Use Reflection to Help People Change

Reflective Listening Skills Can Help

When I was younger I thought that I could fix people. If only they would listen to my advice, they would really have a better life.

I even did have the answers sometimes. For example, if someone said to me that they don’t feel close to God, I might reply, “You should pray more.”

Was I wrong? No, the Bible says that we should pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:16). So, I felt that I was on firm ground in my response.

The problem was that my advice would shut down a conversation or annoy the person that I meant to help. Ultimately, they really didn’t change. My approach wasn’t successful.

I’ve now come to the conclusion that if is far better for me to just listen. Proverbs 18:13 says, “The one who gives an answer before he listens— that is his folly and his shame.”

I’ve also learned that the way to help someone is for them to come to their own conclusions. If they say it, they own it. If I say it, they may or may not accept it.

Reflection Statements

There is a great book, Motivational Interviewing, that lays out how to help people change. The techniques in this book are fantastic – whether you mentor couples, lead a small group or just want to be a good listener.

One of the interesting techniques that they teach is the use of reflective statements. A reflection makes a guess about what a person means. This helps a people explore their thinking.

Their study has shown that statements, rather than questions, are more effective. They use these examples. You might need to say them aloud to hear the difference.

“You’re feeling uncomfortable?”
“You’re feeling uncomfortable.”

“You don’t think this is a problem?”
“You don’t think this is a problem.”

“You’re considering a divorce?”
“You’re considering a divorce.”

Can you hear the subtle difference? They have found that asking people questions to explain themselves causes them to distance themselves from what they are experiencing. It puts them more on an analytical path and they wonder if they should have expressed what they said.

I like that distinction. I would rather someone feel free to express themselves than second guessing what they should or shouldn’t be saying.

“I’m hearing you say…”

We teach mentors to reflect back what they hear. We encourage them to be tentative, since they may not be understanding what someone is saying.

I have had the habit of responding to someone with “What I hear you saying is…” I’m now working on shortening my statements a little. Now, I’m leaving out the first part of the sentence.

Simple Versus Complex Reflection

When we teach listening skills, people will start with simple statements.

Wife: “I am unhappy with our marriage.”
Mentor: “You’re unhappy.”

It’s basically repeating what you heard. This is ok and it has a place.

When you get better at this, you can add more complexity to your response. This means taking a guess at what they are really thinking or feeling. It extends the understanding you both have.

Husband: I don’t like it that my wife criticizes me as soon as I walk in the door.

Options on how to respond:
“I don’t like it when that happens to me either.” [Not listening]
“You feel criticized.” [Simple statement]
“You work late because you don’t want to be criticized.” [Adds a guess]

Adding a guess to the statement can bring the conversation to a new level. It offers insight to the person. When you get it right, the person will open up more. They feel more understood.

Husband: Yes, I either work late or I immediately go turn the TV on so I don’t have to talk to her.
Mentor: That increases your disconnection to your wife.
Husband: It’s causing us to live as roommates.
Mentor: You don’t want to live that way.

Do you see how I was adding a guess?

I’ve gotten better at doing this. I started with simple statements and I’ve learned to listen for what’s underneath. I listen for the feeling. As my understanding of conflict patterns has grown, I’ve gotten better at adding insight to my statement.

What if you get it wrong? When I get it wrong, the person usually clarifies the misunderstanding and goes on. They appreciate that I’m trying to listen to them.

My wife and I have been working with couples for over 15 years. It’s taken me a long time to learn better techniques. This is a listening technique that you can master, but it does take some time to improve.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Don’t beat yourself up – Sometimes when I talk about techniques like this I fear I am making this too complex. If this seems difficult, stick with simple statements. Couples will appreciate that you care for them.
  • Try a statement rather than a question – Reflect back a statement. I’ve found that this helps people to understand themselves better.
  • Extend understanding by making a guess – Make an educated guess on what they are feeling or thinking.


Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. New York: The Guilford Press. Pages 48-61.