“You’re Not Listening to Me!”
You’ve probably heard that phrase at some point in your life. The fact is, most people run into the problem of feeling as though they aren’t being heard on a daily basis. This may occur while on the phone with a customer service representative, or it may occur in a boardroom meeting to discuss a possible new product or service. The problem of feeling as though your voice isn’t being heard is often one of the root causes of a conflict, and so understanding how to use effective listening techniques is one of the keys to conflict resolution.
What is Listening?
Before you can learn how to actively listen, it’s important to understand what listening is. While it’s certainly true that listening is the act of using your ears to hear sounds, it actually goes much deeper than that. Listening means allowing someone else the space to voice what it important to them, and putting your intention on really understanding what they say. These two elements are often what is missing from most conflict situations. In a conflict, opposing sides both have an idea, thought or message, and they want the other side to hear what they have to say. Simply hearing what someone has to say is not listening. Listening is hearing what the other side has to say, considering it and then meeting it with the proper response. Conflict resolution starts with listening, not simply hearing.
What is Active Listening?
While active listening means using your ears to hear what a person is saying, it also means showing them that you are listening. Active listening may include verbal cues, such as agreeing with the person speaking, or it may include body language, such as nodding your head. The point of active listening is to show the person you’re speaking with that you are actually paying attention to what they have to say, not simply hearing it. You will want to show and convince the other person that you are giving some thought to what they are saying, and that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. In conflict resolution, it is imperative that the opposing side knows you are actively listening.
One of the keys to doing this effectively, however, is to be actually genuine about it; don’t feign interest. While feigning interest may be the polite thing to do, you can’t force yourself to be interested if you’re truly not. If you are motivated to work towards conflict resolution, consider what signals you are sending and how genuinely interested you are in allowing the other person space to speak and to be understood. When giving cues that you are paying attention and actively listening, make your verbal and visual cues genuine, and do not use sarcasm or overly-inflated gestures, such as rolling your eyes, to show you’re listening. This will generally be met with more defensiveness or criticism on their part, making the goal of achieving conflict resolution that much farther away.
You can also paraphrase what the person is saying to show that you’re listening. This means interjecting to check in with the person to ensure you understand them. This will also give the person a chance to clear things up if they aren’t being clear in what they are saying. While listening, you have a chance to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you were them, how would you feel about the situation? How would you want to be spoken to or treated? If you’re considering saying something in response, how would the other person feel about it or react to it? It’s important to keep in mind that conflict resolution involves both parties in the conflict.
Active Listening: Your Secret Toolbox
When actively listening, you need to ask yourself what you intend to gain from the situation. Are you wanting to get someone to see your point? Are you hoping to convince a person that their point is incorrect? Are you wanting to reach a conclusion to a conflict? Are you truly hoping for conflict resolution, or are you simply trying to prove your point, regardless of the cost?
Listening to someone is actually one of the most effective ways to persuade someone to see your side, and it can also be a fantastic tool to use in conflict resolution. In fact, listening is one of the oldest tools used in rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and it is used in virtually all communication, every single day. By listening to someone with an opposing viewpoint, you are essentially disarming them. If you’re in a conflict with someone, they are going to expect you to respond. In fact, while they are talking, they are probably already thinking of a response to your expected response. Instead, by listening, you are disarming them, leaving them with an unexpected response.
Not Listening Leads to Conflict
When trying to get a point across, you probably will want to be able to be clear and concise; but what happens when someone interrupts you?
Imagine you’re trying to persuade a coworker that your idea for a new product is better than theirs. You might approach your coworker and begin to tell all about this great new idea that you have. In the middle of your presentation, your coworker cuts you off, and then they begin to tell you why they don’t like the idea. Your first reaction may be to then cut your coworker off and continue with your presentation. From there, your coworker will probably feel the need to cut you off again, and this can then escalate with each of your cutting each other off, and no real information being presented; this creates conflict.
Once this conflict begins, however, it can spiral out of control quickly. In fact, within a few moments, the conflict probably won’t even be about the product anymore, but instead, it will be about each of you cutting the other off. This often leads to raising one’s voice, showing an aggressive posture and hurt feelings. Unfortunately, had both of you practiced active listening in this situation, it may not have led to such a conflict.
How Active Listening Can Bring About Conflict Resolution
Now, imagine the above scenario again, but this time, consider that, when your coworker cuts you off, you practice active listening. Instead of immediately reacting and trying to talk over them, you allow them to continue speaking, showing them from time to time that you are listening by paraphrasing what you hear to be important to them, and showing with your body language that you are open to what they have to say. By doing this, the scenario may play out quite differently. Your coworker may be surprised that you aren’t trying to talk over them, and they may react with a softer voice and a less aggressive stance. They may then finish their statement and allow you to speak. Or you can interject to paraphrase what you’ve heard them say, and ask if they’d be willing to hear your opinion about it. From there, you can begin to actually listen to one another, avoiding a conflict before it even begins.
Don’t Let Your Pride Create a Conflict
The issue that many people have with listening in both their professional and personal lives is allowing their ego to get in the way. Everyone wants their voice to be heard, and everyone wants their thoughts, ideas and feelings validated, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to speak and communicate honesty and openly. When someone doesn’t have their feelings validated, they may be apt to become more aggressive, and this can create conflict.
Everyone wants to be respected, including the person you’re in a conflict with. For most people, simply being quiet and listening to what the other person has to say may seem counter-intuitive. Why should I be quiet when I’m trying to say something? The fact is, by being quiet and listening, you’re actually showing the opposing side that you believe in your argument strongly enough that you’re willing to let them speak. Active listening can demonstrate that you have confidence in yourself while at the same time respecting another’s perspective on the situation, creating a space for dialogue where both people’s opinions merit respect and due consideration. You may just find that by actively listening, you establish a platform of respect and trust for your own voice to be heard as well.
By listening to a person, you are showing them the respect which you yourself would like to receive from them. In conflict resolution, the goal is to show the opposing side respect by actively listening to them, and in turn, this should garner respect from them.
Patience is a Virtue
Listening to others is a technique which can take time to develop. It involves patience and an understanding of yourself. By being patient, you are giving yourself time to formulate an appropriate response to what you’re being told, all while giving respect and credence to the opposing side. As we’ve discussed, this can go a long way in conflict resolution.
Final Thoughts and Questions
While implementing conflict resolution strategies, you need to ask yourself why you are doing so. What do you wish the final result to be? Are your current words or actions in line with that goal? Are you setting yourself up to win a battle and lose a war? Or are you investing in creating a civil, respectful space where people in conflict can agree to disagree where they need to?
You should also examine your attitude, your emotions and your behavior. Are they in line with who you truly are? Are you being honest in your approach to resolving the conflict? Conflict resolution is about honesty and directness, both in your emotions and your thoughts. By remaining humble, yet clear and stable, you will be able to employ active listening to bring about a better outcome to a conflict, and you will generally earn respect while doing so.