Active Listening and Conflict Management

I have been studying communication, conflict management and resolution, and persuasion/influence.  I cannot remember the source, but I recall an interesting statistic: approximately 98 percent of all encounters in which force is used can be solved through some other means.  Now, I must say I have no idea how one quantifies that kind of thing and creates a statistic, but it still got me thinking more deeply about human conflict.  Conflict is a natural occurrence because we all have a unique lens through which we view the world as well as a unique way of operating within it.  Since “reality” is such a fluid concept based on those parameters, I suppose it would be fair to say it is a wonder we get on as well as we do with one another.  Yet I have observed those individuals who honestly profess that they endure very little conflict in their everyday lives, even though the nature of their life’s work requires them to be in constant contact with people on a weekly, even daily basis.  The question is, are they just lucky?  Do they have a distorted, rosy view of reality as some would claim?

I don’t wish to contradict myself and say that bad things don’t happen to good people.  Rotten people do prey upon good people—even skilled individuals who are doing everything right can have a run-in with slick predators.  We need to have some preparation for the worst case scenario even though the probability is small.  But I have to say that I believe the aforementioned people who claim they experience little or no conflict in their lives, and I don’t believe they live in a fantasy world.  Some folks develop mastery in dealing with others and are able to influence a lot of outcomes based on a specific mindset and certain persuasive skills (i.e. communication skills) that really set the tone for their environment.  It is as if they have this bubble, or sphere of influence that follows them wherever they go.  If you have a conversation with one of these masters and listen to the stories they have to tell, you begin to notice the key ingredient; the most important tool in their toolbox is the skill of listening.

Most of us have a belief that we are good listeners.  I would venture to say that the majority of us have the ability to be so, but probably fall short most days.  Why?  Because real listening requires work.  In a modern world full of shiny and sexy bleeding-edge technological distractions, the work of listening is even harder than it used to be.  Think about it.  Do you notice that if you actually get an opportunity to sit down and have a conversation face-to-face with people you know, you are constantly competing for their attention with incoming calls, email notifications and text messages?  In a fast-paced world characterized by factoids and sound bytes, short-attention spans and tight schedules, we probably don’t think we even have the time to devote to listening.  As James Borg (a leading expert on persuasion) explains, we also tend to confuse hearing with listening.  Hearing is a sensory activity, a physiological function.  Listening, on the other hand, is a cognitive process because it requires interpretation and understanding.  Many of us believe that talking is the most important aspect of communication, and that we are wasting time if we are not flapping our gums and getting our point across (in an effort to get things done!).  Yet, think of how many people have ruffled our feathers and made us downright furious in the course of our lives because we felt like they didn’t ever listen to what we were saying?

The elements of active listening are as follows:

Giving them time to talk: holy smokes, this is monumentally important.

Paraphrasing: recapping what the speaker has said, which lets them know you are trying to understand them.  It also gives them the opportunity to rephrase if you are not receiving the message they are laboring to send.

Asking open-ended questions: gives the speaker an opportunity to elaborate, which gives you more insight into their reasoning.  Avoid using leading questions, if you really want to get down to the meat and potatoes of what’s making them tick.

Watching and understanding body language and other non-verbal communication: over 90 percent of what we say is not with our words, no matter how carefully we choose them.  This is a science all by itself—and a fascinating one, I might add.
 
Most of us want to be listened to, and have confirmation that we have been understood.  Here are some barriers to listening:

Interrupting—seems like so many are just waiting for us to shut up so they can talk, though often they can’t wait long enough.

Finishing someone’s sentences—want to irritate someone?  Do this over and over.  If you finish their sentences with the wrong ending, they are most likely not going to correct you, but resent the heck out of you anyway.  And, they are left with the feeling that they are not in control of their own ideas.  Sounds like a recipe for contempt.

Talking over people—wow, this is as bad as interrupting.

When people listen to us, and make an effort to understand us, it takes the heat out of our anger.  After a while, we really don’t feel like being mad anymore.  There is nothing magical about it!  I wonder.  Are we inadvertently escalating interpersonal conflicts further than they need to go because of not taking a little extra time to listen to one another?  Don’t get me wrong–people are still responsible for their actions, even if anger turns into violent aggression, but I do wonder how true that statistic about use of force is, and how much could be abated through lending an understanding ear.

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