Reflecting Skills

Ensuring that you understand your clients, and that your clients feel understood by you is foundational to the counseling relationship. The skills on this page are particularly useful for building the counseling relationship by helping your clients to know that you are hearing and understanding what they are saying.

Summarizing, Paraphrasing, & Reflecting

Summarizing, paraphrasing, and reflecting are probably the three most important & most commonly used microskills. These skills can be used by counselors to demonstrate their empathy to clients, make the counseling session go "deeper", & increase clients' awareness of their emotions, cognitions, & behaviors. All three methods involve repeating back, in your own words, what the client has said. Counselors often go beyond simple repetition and include their own interpretations of the client's emotions or existential meaning to increase the "depth" of the session. These techniques can often be used in place of questions, as, like questions, they prompt the client to reflect or talk more. However, these techniques often have additional benefits of questions as they also demonstrate that the counselor empathizes with and understands each client. Summaries, paraphrases, and reflections can be described as:

  • Summarizing
    • Broadest of the three methods for repeating information.
    • Useful at the end or beginning of session. For example, summarizing the session to the client or reorienting the client to the previous session.
    • Summaries can include condensed paraphrases & reflections.
  • Paraphrasing
    • Not as broad as a summary, yet more broad than a reflection.
    • Useful for pacing counseling sessions and for demonstrating empathy to clients.
    • Paraphrases can contain condensed reflections.
  • Reflecting
    • There are three broad types of reflection: Reflections of content, reflections of feeling, & reflections of meaning.
    • Counselors can strengthen their reflections by constructing a reflection that integrates content, process, affect, and meaning. For example, "While talking about the loss of your dog (content) I experience you as alternating between anger and sadness (affect). That makes a lot of sense to me (self-disclosure), since you told me that seeing your dog at the end of a stressful day kept you grounded (meaning)".

Types of Reflections

Counselors can reflect a wide range of information, but reflections typically include one or more of the following:

  1. Content
    • Reflecting content involves repeating back to clients a version of what they just told you. Reflecting content shows the client you understand and are listening to them. Typically, reflecting content alone is not as powerful as reflecting content with emotions and/or meaning.
  2. Emotions
    • Reflecting a client's emotions is often useful for heightening the client's awareness of and ability to label their own emotions. It is important that counselors have a wide emotional vocabulary, so they can tailor their word choice to match a level of emotional intensity that is congruent with a client's experience. Feeling word charts are useful for reviewing a wide range of feeling words.
  3. Meaning
    • As existential theorists observe, humans are meaning making creatures. Reflecting a client's meaning can increase the client's self-awareness while encouraging emotional depth in the session.

Emotional Heightening

Counselors can intentionally use language to increase or decrease the emotional intensity of their reflections, thereby altering a client's emotional arousal. Using evocative language and metaphors (e.g., "walking on eggshells") encourages clients to go deeper into a particular experience or emotion, which can heighten awareness and understanding. Conversely, a counselor might support a client in containing their emotions toward the end of the session, so the client is prepared to leave the session.

It is important that counselors attempt to match their reflections to the emotional intensity of the client's experience. Thus, intentionality is important when counselors reflect more or less emotion than the client expresses, as doing so can result in the client feeling misunderstood and not listened to.

An example of emotional heightening is:

  • Client: "My wife and I can't stop fighting with each other, and things are really escalating."
  • Counselor: "Your fights are becoming more explosive and hostile."