In my experience, trying to practice reflective listening over SMS or other asynchronous messaging platform doesn't work.

As a sender, if I send a reflection and we weren't deeply embedded in active conversation on both sides, I find that the other person often disengages, maybe texts back a few hours later sounding frustrated.

As a receiver, I get frustrated when someone sends a reflection or reflective question since it comes across as very noticeable/clumsy and I often don't want to talk the thing through with them. Maybe I said all I meant to say (e.g. why I had to cancel plans for this week--I don't need their empathy over that and don't want it when it means having to text replies back to them over and over) or I was going somewhere else and their responses are like roadblocks that stop me from where I was going.

Is reflective listening still applicable to messaging, and I just need to be more skillful? Or are other communication strategies better?

I'm intrigued by the slant of this article which emphasizes being more explicit about a lot of things--saying how what the other person said made you feel, specifying the response you want, asking the other person about feelings/reactions to what you said. Should these skills replace reflections?

Update: examples -

1) Person A is talking/venting at length about a situation with family that's really causing stress. Giving advice, platitudes, etc. wouldn't be appropriate, but I want them to know I'm listening and there for them. I reply, "It sounds like this is really stressful for you". They don't reply.

2) Person B messages me asking how my day went. I reply to the request for info but get frustrated by the follow-up questions since I don't want to talk at all but they keep coming:

B 1:50pm: How are you?

Me 5:17pm: A wide range of emotions. Currently worrying about my friend who's falling into a deeper depression and convinced that he's tried everything and nothing can ever work to make his life better.

B 5:44pm: Could he use some company?

B 5:45pm: Would he welcome it?

Me 5:45pm: He lives in [far-away city], but he's grateful when I call him.

Me 5:46pm: I was thinking of maybe sending him something?

B 5:47pm: You could?

B 7:54pm: What were you thinking of sending?

Me 4 days later: Eventually I realized it is more helpful to just send him more text messages and phone calls :P

This person's questions aren't technically reflections but they are active listening, apparently for the sake of trying to be supportive, but it's a burden for me to answer them, and they seem clumsy enough to annoy me too--like someone trying to relate without actually revealing anything of themself or bringing any interesting ideas to the table.

Also, to the point of reflective listening only being useful in some situations--that makes sense, that's why I'm irritated at Person B for messaging me in this way, but I usually spend several hours a week in text-based conversations that meet this criterion: "Your friend is ranting to you about a complex situation and needs validation"

Common conversation topics over text or Facebook Messenger for me include:

  • Dealing with gender dysphoria
  • Body-image issues
  • Loss of friends to suicide
  • Interacting with abusive parents
  • Relationship problems
  • Harassment at work
  • Someone's LGBT coming out process
  • Mental health problems
  • Sex-related shame
  • Someone asking for counseling on an issue they're responsible for, e.g. a performer in the troupe they run who's been accused of sexual assault
  • Poverty/financial problems

When I'm "being genuine" it works, but sometimes I don't have anything to say that's "genuine", but I still don't want to say nothing or resort to other communication strategies I know would be ineffective (like saying "I'm sure it'll turn out okay"). I don't have an example off the top of my head but even when someone keeps engaging when I'm trying to do reflective-listening-style messages, it subjectively introduces discord. In an actual conversation (phone or in-person) I can read tone of voice or face/body language to adjust in real-time to stay more on the same page, but that isn't there in text.


2 Answers 2


Although some specific examples might be helpful as requested, I would like to approach answering this question in the general way that it was asked. I recently informally polled about 100 college students, asking them:

Out of all of your interpersonal communication, how much would you say occurs electronically or online (cell phones, social networking, etc.)

Even the students seemed a little surprised that the average was around 80%. Given this very informal survey, my sense is that younger people are essentially replacing much of their face-to-face communication, and therefore the basic needs we achieve through interpersonal communication, with various forms of texting, whereas older people still go out of their way to spend more time face-to-face. With that in mind, I do believe that it makes sense that the greater percentage of one's overall communication that occurs via text the more they might need to incorporate things like reflective listening in that medium. If you are essentially depending on texting to achieve the basic needs derived from communication, then it would follow that you need to make that communication more interpersonal. Older people (or people who text less) probably tend to keep texting informal, but younger people (or people who text more) probably rely on it for a wider range of contexts. (As an example, some people will only break up via text, and other people would never do such a thing.)

With all that background, my answer to the question is that, just like in face-to-face communication, part of the overall skill is reading the situation, and accurately perceiving what the other person wants or needs. This is obviously more challenging via text, as you do not have all the nonverbal cues to rely on and interpret. In some situations it may just be a matter of paying attention to the context of the exchange, but in other situations it may be more difficult. In lieu of nonverbals, one needs to use words to fill in the blanks, and as awkward as it may sound, I think that asking a question like,

Do you need me to be a good listener right now or are you just telling me what's going on?

could be helpful. Like any other relationship, you and the other person do get to establish your own unique rules, (and then those rules sometimes turn into schema that can apply to a social group or beyond). If you often experience conflict or dissonance, some metacommunication about how you handle such situations can be very helpful. For example,

Hey, you know how we always seem to get confused in our texts? I think I just have trouble knowing when I am supposed to . . . I know it might sound a little weird, but I am just going to ask from now on.

I think to the older person/person who doesn't rely so much on texting, this all may sound a little absurd, but technology is permanently altering the ways we communicate and the social rules and schema around those ways. To me, the key underlying concept is that we need interpersonal communication to satisfy certain basic human needs, and if our face-to-face communication is shifting significantly to text/online, then we need to recognize to what extent that is cutting into our ability to meet those needs. On one hand that could lead a person to text less, but I think this is likely impractical for younger generations. The social expectation is to text. So on the other hand one needs to then consider the sophistication of their texting/online communication. I think this apsect of my answer might relate to what is being reported on in this NPR article: Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden.

So, in conclusion, since I had to provide some theory here to support my answer, my answer is that yes, reflective listening is applicable to texting, when and if you are relying on it to satisfy basic needs, and you can and probably should metacommunicate with the people that really matter to you. Metacommunication, to be clear, simply means communicate about your communication. Its like doing an obstacle course that requires cooperation, and you discuss your strategy for getting through the course ahead of time (or in the middle when you realize you're not being successful).

  • Craig, I'm wondering whether texting can adequately replace the face-to-face communication. It leaves unused much of the wiring that we have dedicated for non-verbal and mentalization, not to mention the "safe environment" instincts. In ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2792572 it strikes me as unusual that only the nearby friends and the neighbors affected the loneliness scores; and the TED talk at medicalxpress.com/news/… hints on the loneliness-safety connection. Maybe we need a proximate safety network? What do you think?
    – ArtemGr
    May 5, 2018 at 1:04
  • 1
    @ArtemGr I definitely do not think texting can adequately replace the health benefits of face-to-face communication. My point is simply that texting is taking up more and more of the total percentage of communication a person engages in, and for someone who chooses that, they can think of ways to make the mediated communication more beneficial. I do think the pendulum might be swinging back though. My most recent students all seem aware of the problem, and seem to want to text less, but I am not sure its something they can really control either. Social pressure is real.
    – Craig
    May 5, 2018 at 2:55
  • Craig, we're trying to find a way to communicate better online. I'd appreciate if you'd have any input on our effort so far (patreon.com/cures) and in the future.
    – ArtemGr
    May 11, 2018 at 11:44

I'm going to challenge the premise of your question.

First of all,

Reflective listening, and other involved client-centric communication techniques are NOT appropriate for casual conversation.

People are smarter than you give them credit for. No one likes uninvited therapy.

Here some good situations to use Reflective Listening:

  • Your friend is ranting to you about a complex situation and needs validation
  • Your coworker is explaining a complex new idea he or she thought of
  • You are in an argument and want the other person to see that you are attempting to understand their viewpoint
  • You are a therapist giving therapy

Notice, that these situations rarely, if ever, occur during text messaging. Why?

Text messaging is casual

Let's look at why reflective listening doesn't work casually.

Me: Nice weather we are having.

Uninvited therapist: Ah, so you're saying the weather has been more pleasant recently than it had been in the past. I see.

That's not a conversation you want to continue, huh?

Reflective listening is a technique, NOT a skill

Therefore, it doesn't need replaced.

Just say what you feel and keep it polite. That's what people expect. It's called being genuine.

Friend: I have to cancel plans this weekend. My grandmother died and the funeral is coming up.

You: I'm sorry for your loss. Hopefully we can reschedule in the future. Thank you for letting me know.

Polite, concise, non-prying, and not a single single consideration of "communication strategies".

  • 4
    Text messaging is not necessarily casual. Please would it be okay to hold off on this answer until OP has given a specific example? Using reflective listening in a casual context could very well be it issue OP is having, but here on IPS we really should try to encourage and inform users on how to use communication techniques effectively rather than just dismiss them entirely. It sounds like you understand how to use reflective listening well but if we could explain the problems with OP's use rather than the entire medium it would be vastly more useful for other users.
    – Jesse
    May 4, 2018 at 7:14
  • @Jesse Non-casual text messaging is inherently ineffective. I don't wish to give advice on how to do it in the same way that I wish not to give swimming advice to someone who wants to swim with cinder blocks tied to their necks.
    – Clay07g
    May 4, 2018 at 14:02
  • I know for a fact that there are suicide help lines that have saved a vast number of lives via text so not completely ineffective. Denying swimming advice to anyone with a handicap, and on a swimming advice website no less is something we want to avoid.
    – Jesse
    May 4, 2018 at 14:22
  • @Clay07g, I used to share your opinion, but I think that "inherently ineffective" is too broad of a statement. Communication and language are too dynamic to assume that the people using a certain medium are not sophisticated enough to develop new nuanced ways of communicating in that medium. This reminds me of colleagues who say that online education is inherently ineffective, and thus do not take any measures to make it more effective.
    – Craig
    May 4, 2018 at 14:47
  • @Craig To be fair, the efforts to make that more effective came through advancing the toolset and technology to convey the knowledge. I'll concede that if OP has a legitimate need or reason to start deep conversation through text, I will edit my answer. As it stands, my best guess at his problem is using reflective listening in casual conversations, as that's his only hypothetical example he's given.
    – Clay07g
    May 4, 2018 at 14:52

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