How to Really Listen in A Difficult Conversation

Our first reaction to most of the statements we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation, or judgment, rather than an understanding of it. When someone expresses some feeling or attitude or belief, our tendency is, almost immediately, to feel “That’s right”; or “That’s stupid”; “That’s abnormal”; “That’s unreasonable”; “That’s incorrect”; “That’s not nice.” Very rarely do we permit ourselves tounderstand precisely what the meaning of his statement is to him. I believe this is because understanding is risky. If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual.

Carl R. Rogers

It is precisely when listening is most important, that you want to listen the least.

To resolve a difficult conversation you need to integrate the information you and your counterpart bring to the table. You need to understand one another and find common ground. None of this is possible without listening.

But when your counterpart confronts you with a different point of view, you feel threatened. If he is right, you are wrong. He must be wrong so you can be right.

The last thing you want to do is to listen to him.

Your counterpart feels threatened as well. You confront him with a different point of view. If you are right, he’s wrong. You must be wrong so he can be right.

The last thing he wants to do is to listen to you.

To de-escalate the conflict you must first control your impulse to argue. Second, you have to listen, really listen. And third you have to prove to him that you are listening.

The first step requires a deep breath and act of will. In this video I explain how to take the other two.

Here are 7+1 steps to not only listen, but to prove to your counterpart that you are truly listening:0. Listen. Unless you really listen, you are lying.

Are you really curious? Do you have space inside your mind for your counterpart’s perspective? Unless you hold your view lightly, listening to the other will feel like a waste of time. Why bother? You already know!

1. Focus. Look at her. Don´t do anything else.
Have you ever talked to someone who is on his phone, emailing at the same time? “Go on, I’m listening,” he’ll say. But that just doesn’t cut it. And how do you feel when your counterpart repeats everything and grins, “Told you. I am listening!” in a snarky tone?

2. Be quiet. Let her finish. Don’t interrupt.
I regularly coach executives who want to “learn how to listen.” “That is easy,” I reassure them, “Be quiet.” I respond to their puzzled look with, “You know how to listen. The real question is why you choose to interrupt and not listen.”

3. Encourage. Nod. Say “Mhmm.” Paraphrase.
If you are quiet and keep a poker face, she won´t know if you are with her. Quietly nodding or paraphrasing encourages her to present her views fully. Your silent attention creates a vacuum that she will fill up with meaning.

4. Summarize. Play back her essential point.
Attributing the summary to the other will allow you to accept her perspective, even if you don´t agree with it. When you say, “I understand that you prefer that we change priorities,” you are not agreeing that it would be best to change priorities.

5. Check. Ask her if you got her point, and let her correct you.
You may have not gotten the gist of her argument. Perhaps you misunderstood, or perhaps she misstated it. Either way, by checking you give her a chance to sharpen or expand her thoughts.

6. Validate. Acknowledge she has a point.
Being human is being rational. Telling her that you understand why she sees things the way she does shows respect for her intelligence. If you don´t understand, avoid blaming her, “You are not making sense.” Try instead, “I know that you have an important point, but I don´t get it yet. Can you help me?”

7. Inquire. Ask her what she would like from you.
You can’t read her mind, so you don’t know what she wants. If you assume you do, it’s hit and miss, mostly miss. There are a myriad reasons to engage in conversation; you are on much safer ground if you ask her.

Proposal for readers:
When you get home, ask a family member or a friend to tell you how his or her life is going. Listen empathetically following the guidelines above .

By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin


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