The Importance of Listening in Conflict Resolution
By: Philip G. Thompson
Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil Mediator
Florida Supreme Court Qualified Arbitrator
It has been said that listening is the most important part of communication. I would go so far as to say that this applies even more in conflict resolution. Quite simply, if we don’t hear what the other party is really saying, we will be hard pressed to resolve the conflict. George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred”. Far too often we hear something but come away with a different meaning than what was intended. In conflict resolution, the slightest misunderstanding can change the understanding and outcome of the conflict.
Unfortunately, the tendency in a conflict situation is to react immediately, and often emotionally, to what we just heard. We do this because of an innate trigger that makes us feel like we must react and respond now, because of the risk that we may lose our opportunity to do so later. But, to resolve conflict successfully and constructively, it is vital to think about what we just heard, and fully process this information first before we respond. We must ensure that our takeaway from what we just heard aligns with what the other party was intending to say. We then want to let the other party know that they have been heard in their grievance and that we want to work with them to resolve their issue and not merely remain in opposition to it. This process is known as “active listening”. There are a lot of components to active listening and many techniques that one can employ to achieve it. Too many for us to fully discuss here. But we can summarize some of the big keys to get you started.
LISTEN TO CLARIFY:
First, verify the meaning intended by the other party before you respond. If you think you know what the other party intended to say, repeat it back to them and say, “What I heard you say is …”. But if there is even the slightest doubt in your mind as to what the other side is intending to say, then ask open ended non-threatening questions like, “I am not sure what you mean by …”; or “Could you please clarify for me …”. It is important not to assume that you are speaking the same language as the other party and that you are both on the same page.
LISTEN TO PROBE FOR MORE INFORMATION:
As the dialogue continues, you may need further clarification. Or there may appear to be a deeper underlying emotion driving their source of conflict. In these situations, you can ask for more information. Some examples are, “Would you please tell me more about …”; or “I sense there may be more about …”; or “I am hearing some strong feelings in your words. Do you want to tell me more about that?”. But be careful when probing for more information. It is best to not ask a question that starts with “why” as this may make the other party defensive because it may call into question their judgment or motives. You also need to make sure you hold off on any clarifying or probing questions until the other party has finished saying that particular piece.
LISTEN TO REFRAME:
After you are satisfied that you have an accurate understanding of the issues at hand and the other party’s position, it is helpful to summarize the key components of the dispute and transition into problem solving. This is done by “reframing”. At this point, the focus of the discussion changes dramatically from what has happened in the past to what both parties would like in the future. Here you can ask open ended questions that will frame the issue as a joint problem like, “How can we …”; or “What can we do to …” or “What can be done to meet your need of … and my need of …?”. Here, problems should be framed as interests or needs that require you both to search for solutions. This type of collaborative negotiation is far more constructive than each side merely asserting their own one-sided demands.
LISTEN WITH EMPATHY AND ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY:
A big key to active listening is empathy. Empathy is putting yourself into the other party’s shoes. Doing this will allow you to understand the situation from the other party’s perspective, which will give you a better understanding of the conflict as a whole and how it may be resolved. Because emotions can run high in a conflict, it is easy to become reactive and attack each other. But, to resolve conflict constructively, it is better for both parties to work together to attack the problem itself, and not each other. This starts with empathy for the other party. It also requires each party to accept some responsibility. Attempting to place blame only exacerbates the conflict. To constructively resolve conflict, we must accept our share of responsibility and avoid the blame game. Try reframing the issues with messaging that starts with “I” to convey your needs or concerns or “We” to signal joint ownership and collaboration. This kind of messaging is non-threatening or accusatory. By contrast, messaging that starts with “You” can signal blame or criticism and suggest to the other party that they are at fault.
There are a ton of materials out there on this topic. I urge you to take some time to research these materials further and take a deeper dive into this subject. My goal here was to quickly illustrate how active listening can play a huge role in conflict resolution, and to highlight some effective techniques to employ the next time you find yourself in a conflict situation. Remember, it’s not just what you say or how you say it. It all starts with listening! You need to actively listen to achieve conflict resolution. Otherwise, how will you know if you are truly saying the right things and in the right way to constructively resolve the conflict?