Do you often find yourself wondering how something that you thought was so clear, wasn’t? Listening transcends every part of our lives and is a skill we must continually work to improve. Whether in a conflict situation of the course of your daily conversations, active listening is a strong tool towards better understanding. With active listening you make a conscious effort to hear and understand what other people are saying.
- Intend to understand. Listening with intent is not as easy as it sounds. As the other person speaks, pay attention and be open to hearing their true message. Active listening requires putting your own thoughts on hold because if you’re processing what you want to say next, you’ll miss what they are saying. Ignore outside disruptions and focus fully on what is being said. Show them you are paying attention by making eye contact, nodding, and asking questions to clarify. It’s important to also recognize that your personal filters, biases or experiences will distort how you receive and interpret data, so make an effort to put those aside and concentrate on their message.
- Be patient and Clarify. When listening to the other party, do not interrupt. Interruptions signal that you aren’t interested in what they have to say and destroy any opportunity to create a bridge of understanding. Resist the urge to judge, defend or explain; this is not about agreeing, it’s about hearing and gaining a new perspective. You’ll have your chance to speak next. Once they are done speaking, reflect on their words and any deeper meaning. Paraphrase and repeat back what you heard, asking “is that correct?” This effort goes a long way towards making the other party feel listened to and heard. If you got it wrong, apologize and ask them to repeat, then listen again until you can say it back accurately. Once you have clarity, you can move on and ask them to reciprocate.
- Reciprocate. Now it’s your turn to speak and ask the other person to offer the same respect and consideration to you. When you speak, use “I” statements where possible. Talk about facts and stay away from accusations or fault. Be candid but kind and open to the idea that you may not be “right.” You’re not trying to persuade; this process is about respectfully communicating and gaining understanding. Ask them to repeat back what they heard and if not right, clarify again. Repeating back what they are saying and what they mean does NOT mean you agree with them.
- The path for resolution is now open. Once both parties feel heard and understood, reaching consensus or finding middle ground is much easier. You may also find you can accommodate their true objective in a way that works for you as well, or you may find the conflict is no longer relevant. Feeling understood helps diffuse a tense situation; many times the other party just needed to vent and feel heard. This process also lays the groundwork for later interactions where you will have a better understanding of the other person’s perspective.
Remember the old parable about 2 sisters fighting over the only orange? Once the mother listened carefully to each girl’s side and truly understood the issue, she was able to please both. The one sister wanted the rind for baking and the other wanted the juice. Were it not for active listening (and a smart mother) both sisters would have only ended up with half of what they wanted; neither being satisfied.
This process of active listening works in every area of your life whether you’re communicating with your children, spouse or friends, talking to bosses or coworkers, negotiating that huge deal, or making a presentation to a client. It’s a life skill worth mastering.