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Chapter 27: Reflection


Communication is a tricky process, fraught with the peril of misunderstanding. Successful communication requires four separate steps. To illustrate, imagine that you and your friend Daniel are having a conversation; Daniel talks and you listen.

Step 1. Daniel has a concept that he wants to express. He translates this into words.

Step 2. He speaks the words.

Step 3. You hear the words.

Step 4. Based on your interpretation of the words you heard, you make your best guess at the concept Daniel had in Step 1.

Any one of these four steps can go wrong. Step 1 could go wrong if Daniel fails to capture his intent accurately with the words he chooses. Step 2 could go wrong if he accidentally stumbles over his words. Step 3 could go wrong if you mishear the words he spoke. Step 4 could go wrong if you incorrectly guess Daniel’s intent or meaning.

With all these possibilities for error, it’s a wonder successful communication ever happens at all! One way to make communication more successful is to add a Step 5: Reflection.

Step 5. You rephrase what you heard in your own words. If Daniel thinks that wasn’t actually what he intended, the two of you go around again and clarify.

Reflection is saying “Here’s what I heard you say.” People don’t often take time for this extra step, because most people don’t realize how often miscommunication happens. If you reflect what you just heard back to the person who said it, many occurrences of the usual error and other communication mistakes can be caught before they escalate into misunderstanding or conflict. It can also work the other way, too. When you notice miscommunication has occurred, you can use reflection to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding.

Kyeli’s Story: Why Am I Doing This?

For a long time, I didn’t understand reflection. I thought it was unimportant and kind of annoying. But then I realized that we each speak our own version of our native language. If I say, “Please get some grapes at the store” to Pace, she probably hears me well enough. However, her idea of “some” might be vastly different than mine; maybe she thinks “a pound” and I mean “five pounds” (though that would be a lot of grapes). And this is just one of hundreds of ways we can miscommunicate! Reflection can’t solve all miscommunications, but it can cut a lot of them short.

What drove this home for me was when my coworker Melony and I were working together to get a newsletter out and she wanted me to finish it for her. She gave me a list of instructions.I repeated back to her what I’d heard her ask me to do. “You want me to write out your schedule for the next two months, talk about the special event on Monday the 24th, include that example from Bob’s funeral, and end with the anecdote from Mary’s sister.”She listened, gave me a long, weird look, then said, “I know that’s what I said, but that’s not really what I want.” She gave me a different set of directions: “I want you to create a table with my calendar for the next month, highlight Monday the 24th and mention the special event, omit the example from Bob’s funeral, and end with the anecdote from Gloria’s sister; I don’t like the one Mary’s sister sent now that I’m re-reading it.””Okay,” I began, “let’s go over that again. You want the calender for the next month in a table, a simple highlight and mention of the Monday event, no funeral example, and the story from Gloria’s sister.”This time, she approved them and I went on to do the work. This interaction saved me a lot of work and hassle, and saved Melony a lot of frustration at having my time spent doing the wrong thing!

Reflection ensures that your communication is received with your intent intact. Imagine you are communicating using a mirror. A smooth mirror reflects correctly, but a warped one can cause misunderstanding. It is useful to have a tool to know whether you’ve been understood or not, right away, before miscommunication has a chance to cause any problems.1

1. You can find more information on reflection, also known as “active listening” or “paraphrasing,” in many other books on communication, including Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg.

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