Reflecting mansplaining

3 minute read


Active listening is a hallmark of conflict management. One of the most important parts of active listening is reflecting, which means that you basically say what the other person just said. Sometimes you can also reframe what they said to a positive, future-focused message (e.g. reframing a complaint into what they would want to be the case). Reframing is actually quite difficult to sustain, but reflecting is really easy - and transformative!

During my conflict management training in August, we were matched up with professional mediator mentors during our mediation role plays. My first mentor had a rule that we weren’t allowed to ask any questions until we repeated what the speaker had just said. She would kick us in the shins if we jumped into questioning before reflecting. It was startingly effective - not just in reminding us to reflect, but also in making the mediation session move along productively!

Since discovering this way of communicating, it’s all I ever want - both when I’m talking to others and also when I see people (mis)communicating.

I’ve also started thinking that so many heated debates could be transformed into more productive, learning conversations if only there were more reflecting happening. For example, I saw this Facebook post about mansplaining yesterday:

The thread on the first comment by a man named Alan is incredibly enriching and I highly recommend reading it all.

Apart from the great vocabulary and explanations provided by Kat and other commenters, I found it striking that Alan’s comments were relatively non-inflammatory. Often in threads like this, the conversation quickly becomes accusatory and/or bigoted. In this case, it looks like Alan just doesn’t “get” it.

How differently would his message have been received if it included some reflecting and reframing?

Rather than his original response:

So, there’s some point in the future where it will no longer be OK for women to splain things to men in a belittling manner? Or there will be some indeterminate future point at which enough women are doing this effectively enough to give it an insulting name?

What if he had written:

I hear your frustration with the systemic, societal structures that lead to men disproportionately talking down to or over women and getting away with it even when the women have more expertise.

I find that sometimes, I’ll also be talked down to by women who think that I’m too thick/insensitive/unaware to grasp a concept. Even though I recognize that there aren’t as many societal hierarchies at play in my experience, it still feels pretty bad.

While there’s clearly a lot of work to be done with mansplaining and other types of ‘splaining, I also think it would be amazing to live in a world where all people respected each other and didn’t speak in belittling ways to each other - regardless of gender.

I think that comment would still be problematic and would still trigger an important conversation about mansplaining, but I wonder if the commenters on that thread would have been less defensive from the start.

Either way, I bet we would have felt better that he at least tried to listen and understand.