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If it’s so simple, a baby can do it, why don’t adults do it too?

I’d been watching a video of a baby playing with a toy.

And I was captivated.

It was no ordinary toy. Within the cactus-like shape was a tape recorder, plus something that enabled the toy to ‘shake, rattle and roll’. Baby makes noises and gestures. Cactus toy reflects them back whilst Baby watches and listens intently. When Cactus stops, Baby makes more noises and gestures. Cactus again reflects back. And the ‘conversation’ continues.

Take a minute out to watch it – but then come back! There are two serious points to make about it.


Point #1:

The more predictable reason is that it demonstrates exquisite turntaking. One talked. The other listened. No interruptions. We all know the importance of this – even though we habitually ignore it.

Point #2:

The reflecting back that Cactus does signals ‘I’ve heard you’.

Now, Cactus was doing this in a mechanistic way, by repeating exactly the sounds that Baby made. But think about how you might translate this into a real conversation. You might start with ‘Let me just check that I’ve got what you want to say’, and then follow either with a repetition of the words already spoken (if that degree of precision is important) or else by summarising what has been said.

Maybe this sounds simplistic. Formulaic, perhaps. And certainly it’s unhelpful if it’s done like a parrot, or with an unbelieving tone of voice. Or if it’s quickly followed by a rebuttal, a criticism or defensiveness.

But if it’s done with skill, when the intention is to convey that you are fully present and wanting to ‘receive’ another person, it’s such a valuable starting point for hearing and understanding divergent views.

And there’s a stage beyond accurate repetition. You will often hear people speaking in a rambling, somewhat incoherent way. Their voices convey emotions and interpretations that their words don’t make explicit. But before you react, try reflecting back just the essence of what you’ve heard rather than the whole story. Tune into what seem to be the most significant aspects of what they’ve said.

When this happens, then your skill will have a three-fold effect. You will be:

  • contributing to clarity in a conversation

  • helping the speaker understand themselves better

  • giving them the gift of being heard.

Why this matters

Reflecting back is such a significant part of defusing potentially conflictual situations. It slows down the conversation, preventing it turning into a series of heated ping-pong exchanges. It encourages respectful listening, and encourages the listener to give due attention to the speaker’s perspective and experience.

Learn this skill

It’s a skill that you can explore in an upcoming online workshop I’m co-facilitating: ‘Conflict and You: How to deal with conflict with confidence and skill’.

So many of us are uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with conflict. We either want to turn away from it, or else we bring a combative energy to it that we regret later. Just imagine what a difference it might make to your life if you had constructive ways of responding instead.

Wouldn’t that be a worthwhile return on investment of two hours a week for 10 weeks?

For more details and to sign up, click here.