Conflict Resolution 201: The Skill of Listening

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By Daniel Bobinski

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on conflict resolution.

In my last column, I wrote about the five universal fears and how they get in the way of conflict resolution. By way of review, they are fear of criticism, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not getting what you want and fear of losing what you have. If we’re trying to resolve conflict, we need to minimize these fears, not only in ourselves, but also in those around us.

One way to minimize those fears and maximize our understanding of others is by practicing good listening skills, so that’s what we’ll cover this month.

Most communication classes focus on either speaking or writing – not many classes focus on listening. This is sad, because millions of dollars go down the drain each day because of poor listening

The problem? Everyone wants to be heard first.

Think about it. If everyone is trying to be heard, then nobody is truly trying to understand. Then, when people don’t feel understood, they experience frustration, feelings of isolation, loss of team cohesion and lower levels of commitment. All these impact an organization’s bottom line, so it truly pays to learn how to listen.

The Definition of Listening

Let’s first clarify the difference between hearing and listening.

  • Hearing: the act of perceiving a sound by ear
  • Listening: truly trying to understand what you hear

Hearing happens passively. If our ears are functioning as designed, we can hear. No thinking is required. Something happens that causes a noise, and if were close enough, we hear it.

Listening requires an active, conscious choice. To listen, you must have a purpose in your heart and apply mental effort. Think of listening as a task to accomplish.

Other fears also get in the way of listening. If we truly strive to understand someone else’s point of view before stating our own, we may be afraid of several things.

  • Our listening may be perceived as an agreement even if no agreement exists
  • We may learn something and realize our original perspective was incomplete (vulnerability)
  • We may fear that by listening first, we won’t be given opportunity to convey our perspective
  • All of the above

I’m going to share two steps for effective listening, but before I do I first want to cover the seven deadly sins of not listening. Why? Although it’s important to know what to do, if you have listening sins that get in the way, good listening gets canceled out.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Not Listening

  1. Filtering. This is when a person’s mind sifts through another person’s words looking for areas of agreement or disagreement. No effort is being made to truly understand the speaker.
  2. Second-guessing. This is striving to assume – and judge – someone’s motives.
  3. Discounting. This sin occurs when a listener lacks respect for a speaker. Even if a speaker is 100% correct, a discounter dismisses what is being said. This is sad, because discounters often miss genuine solutions to problems.
  4. Relating. People who continually compare what’s being said to events from their own life are relating. You can usually identify this sin when you hear the phrase, “That reminds me of when I … ”
  5. Rehearsing. This is mentally reviewing what you’re going to say while waiting for the speaker to finish. It’s hard to pay attention to a speaker when your mind is focused on how you’re going to state your next sentence.
  6. Forecasting. This is letting your mind run too far ahead with an idea. There’s a fine line between knowing where the conversation is going and running too far ahead with it. If you forecast too far, a speaker will think you’re not listening, and this lowers trust.
  7. Placating. Often committed by people pleasers, placating is when you say yes to everything for one of several reasons. A) You don’t want to take time or invest energy to listen, B) you don’t really care about what’s being said, or C) you’re just wanting to avoid conflict.

If conversations are smooth, the items above aren’t necessarily sins. But in times of conflict or misunderstanding, the items listed above are behaviors to avoid.

Two Steps for Listening

At its basic level, true listening is a two-step process.

Step 1: Focus on the other person.

Step 2: Seek confirmation of what you perceive.

To truly listen, you must first focus on the other person. What are they thinking? What are they feeling?

Are they frustrated? Concerned? Thrilled? Happy? Disappointed? Are they identifying a problem? Describing a solution to a problem? Expecting a particular action? Looking for help? Relaying information?

Don’t be limited by what you see here. These are only examples. The idea is to look for the nuances of thoughts and feelings surrounding a person’s words.

Step two establishes a deeper connection with the speaker, and prevents you from acting on assumptions. The idea is to get verification that what you have perceived is correct. This can be done several ways.

  • Ask questions. If I understand you correctly, you’re concerned about the deadline?
  • Make statements, but with a voice tone that allows the other person to validate. You sound really concerned about the deadline.

By seeking confirmation, you’re allowing the other person to say, “Yes, that’s it,” or, “No, not quite.”

If the person says, “No, not quite,” ask the person to clarify what you didn’t understand.

The Danger of “I Understand”

Two phrases to avoid are, “I understand,” and “I know how you feel.” First, there is no way for you to truly understand. People have deep feelings and experiences you may know nothing about. Second, such phrases place the focus back on you, thus violating step number one. Third, the speaker can doubt you. Just saying the phrase, “I understand,” doesn’t mean it’s true.

Bottom line, so many of us are not taught to listen, and that makes it difficult to resolve conflict and misunderstandings. Listening is truly a skill that must be learned, and it is necessary if we are going to resolve disagreements.

In my next column, I’ll talk about how to maintain trust while getting to the root of a problem.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him through his website, www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com.

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