Leading Others

Practice Reflective Listening

The purpose of this activity is to practice reflective listening skills. Reflective listening is a skill where one person seeks to understand another speaker’s idea, then offers the idea back to the speaker to confirm the idea has been understood correctly. Reflective listening is valuable in building relationships with other team members or when serving as a meeting facilitator.


1-2 hours

Group Size


Skill Level


Comfort Level



Flip Chart, Markers

Step 1

Prior to the meeting, ask participants to read, Ways That Emerging Nonprofit Leaders Can Build Listening Skills.

Step 2

On a slide, flip chart, or paper handout, share these reflective listening techniques below.  Describe each one.

Paraphrasing: Repeating back in your own words what someone has said, often using phrasing such as “Let me see if I’m understanding you.” This builds trust and establishes your objectivity. You end your paraphrase with “Did I get it?”

Drawing People Out: After you listen and paraphrase, you ask powerful questions.

Mirroring: This is repeating back verbatim what someone has said using their words. It lets the speaker hear what they just said and can build trust. It is used in brainstorming because it speeds up the discussion

Intentional Silence: Leaving space for quiet is an essential reflective listening skill. It is basically a pause. It helps people process complex thoughts.

Step 3

Tell participants that they are going to practice these four reflective listening skills with each other in small groups of three. Tell participants that each person in the group of three will be assigned one of three roles.  You can write this information on a flip chart page or slide:

1: Talker: The person’s role is to explore a question or challenge they are facing. They will have opportunity to share with the Reflective Listener for 10 minutes.

2: Reflective Listener: This person will practice the four techniques above.

3: Observer: The person’s role is to observe the process without speaking. To make observations from an outside perspective, to see and hear things that the listener and subject may note. This person should keep in mind: stay silent throughout the process; observe and make notes about what you see and hear.

During the last five minutes, the observer will share with the other two people in the group their observations.

Step 4

Tell participants that everyone will have an opportunity to practice each of these roles. Ask participants to organize into trios. Assign the three roles mentioned above so that the 1’s start at the Talker; the 2’s start as the Listener; and the 3’s begin as the Observer. Tell participants there will be three rotations of 15 minutes each. Begin timing the first rotation for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, let participants know that it is time for the Observer to give feedback. Let the group know when the five minutes is up.

Step 5

Start the timer again, but this time the 2’s play the role of Talker, the 3’s are the Listener and the 1’s are the Observers. Repeat Step 4, and then do one final round to ensure everyone has played all roles once.

Step 6

After participants complete the exercise, with everyone getting a chance to play all three roles, ask everyone to come together for a debrief with the full group. Ask participants the following questions and capture on a flip chart page:

    • How did it feel to be the listener?
    • How did it feel to be the talker?
    • What insights did you learn about reflective listening skills?
    • What are some opportunities for you to practice reflective listening skills?