Resolving conflict or making a meaningful connection with someone requires good communication. When you think of communication, you probably think first about the speaking part of communication. If you are trying to resolve a conflict with someone, it’s natural you would want to start off by explaining or defending yourself. Many people think that the primary skill in resolving conflict is to speak clearly enough so the other person will understand where you are coming from. That makes sense. However, time and time again this method proves frustrating and wildly ineffective. The problem is that you can become so focused on the speaking part that you forget about the listening part of communication. Both are required, and I’d argue that the listening part is actually the most powerful component of effectively resolving conflict.
The Power of Listening to Understand
Attentively listening to someone with a genuine curiosity has powerful effects on you and the person to whom you are listening. To truly listen to someone is to seek to fully understand what they are saying. The focus is completely on listening to and understanding what they are saying…not half-way listening while mentally conjuring up your immediate rebuttal or impatiently waiting on them to take a breath so you can speak your rebuttal. It’s not looking at your phone while they talk as if you could care less what they have to say. Nor is it rolling your eyes at every word as if you think they are the most idiotic person on the planet (Yikes! I cringe as I type this one, because I’ve caught myself doing this way too many times).
Genuinely listening to someone is an act of intimacy, and when experienced it has a powerful calming effect on the person being listened to and on the situation. Almost inevitably, the person being listened to, whatever mood they started out in, will begin to soften. In turn, this softening can become contagious and you will catch your own heart softening as you are now more easily able to empathize. Additionally, as the calming effect gradually sinks in, anxiety and anger levels begin to decrease which then allows the brain to focus more clearly. This natural chemical reaction will come in handy when it is your turn to speak, as you will be able to speak in a more calm and clear manner making it that much easier for you to effectively communicate and resolve the issue at hand.
How to Listen
Listening is not just about hearing the words someone is saying, rather it is about understanding the person and the heart of what they are trying to say. In the counseling world we call this “active listening.” Active listening requires complete attention and intention. Remember, the purpose is to fully understand as much as possible, so approach this skill with genuine curiosity. Here are a few guidelines to help you succeed in listening and fully understanding.
- Give your complete attention. Face the person you are listening to. Make eye contact. Put away all distractions.
- Identify 2 things: content and feeling. Listen to what they are saying (content) and try to pick up on how they are feeling. If they do not state what they are feeling ask yourself how you would feel if you were in their situation. *Learning to identify what they are feeling is crucial in showing that you understand and in softening the atmosphere.
- Show that you understand by reflecting back what you heard and how you think they feel. This can save a lot of time in resolving conflict as this will give you both a chance to clear up any misunderstandings right off the bat.
- Remain curious and ask questions if you have difficulty understanding or if you need clarification. Asking questions shows that you are trying to understand rather than argue. Investigate don’t interrogate!
- Only after you have completed these steps and your partner has confirmed that you are tracking him/her correctly, then it becomes your turn to speak your thoughts and feelings on the matter.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s a good idea to practice this skill of active listening even when you are not in conflict. Here are a couple questions you can ask each other to help you get started. Ask the question and then practice listening with a genuine curiosity to the answer. Take turns.
- What is a favorite childhood memory?
- What do you like/dislike most about your job?
- What do you look forward to in the future?
- What is something you are worried about this week?
- What can I do to make you feel special or respected?
…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. – James 1:19
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. – Steven Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked. – Mark Twain
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. – Winston Churchill