Updated: May 20, 2020
“If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” -Dr. Steven R Covey
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Covey argues that most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand one another. Rather, we listen with the intent to reply.
I’m definitely guilty of that more than I’d like to admit. I've got a hunch you might struggle with this, too.
Think back to the last argument you had with a friend, partner or colleague. As you replay the dialogue back in your mind, can you identify portions of the argument in which you were “scriptwriting” your next counterpoint instead of actively listening to understand the message being communicated?
If so, you aren’t alone.
Most of us aren’t great listeners. Yet, active listening is one of the most underrated and overlooked skills that builds trust between conversational partners and leads to success in our interpersonal relationships.
Truth is, most of us received very little, if any, skills training in the art of active listening.
And that’s because our culture values speaking more than listening. To illustrate, when was the last time you heard someone say that they wanted to grow in their public speaking skills?
When was the last time you heard someone say they wanted to grow in their listening skills?
And that’s a shame, especially since listening failures can be so costly, both in the workplace and in our interpersonal relationships. If we misunderstand a message at work, we run the risk of trying to solve the wrong problem or assuming the worst about a situation or colleague. We lose trust, momentum and likely money. If we consistently misunderstand messages sent to us by a loved one, we risk the relationship itself.
The good news is that there are simple adjustments you can make today that will increase the likelihood of achieving understanding in your conversations.
1. Listen With Your Body, Not Just Your Ears
One of the easiest ways to improve our listening skills is to focus on the nonverbal messages we send when our conversational partner is speaking.
While much of this seems obvious, it’s alarming how we let this aspect of our communication suffer because of our own laziness. We end up looking unapproachable, dismissive, or defensive when we use poor body language in conflict.
When listening, it’s important we use a direct body orientation, which means our body is completely directed towards our partner so that we have effectively distanced ourselves from the many distractions surrounding us. It communicates that we’re invested in the interaction and we were willing to block out everything else competing for our attention. We aren’t turning away, placing barriers between ourselves, or crossing our arms in defense.
Rather, we face each other, remove barriers, and use direct eye contact to reduce physical and psychological distance.
For sure, it’s easier said than done to keep a relaxed, direct and open posture when we’re in conflict, but exceptional listeners make this a discipline in their communication.
2. Analyze Your Own Tendencies and Prepare Accordingly
Take time to think through your conversational tendencies when in a conflict. If you have no clue where to start, ask someone you trust who you’ve also argued with recently. Ask yourself or someone else:
What kinds of topics get you the most frustrated? What behaviors from the other party make you the most upset in conflict?
What kinds of things do you typically say when you feel angry, anxious, sad or fearful?
What, if anything, do you do that escalates the conflict?
How do you typically end a conflict conversation?
For me personally, I can feel my body tense up and my heart-rate increase. Often times I turn the volume down, so to speak, on my partner’s message, so I can prepare a response in my mind.
Or, I’m embarrassed to admit, I simply stonewall.
When we do the (sometimes) painful work of analyzing ourselves, we're equipped with the knowledge we need to prepare for the next tough conversation. Because I know that I am prone to stonewall, I have to be very intentional about leaning into the conflict when I feel the temptation to shut down.
But when I’m listening intentionally, to both my partner and to my own thoughts and feelings, I’m better prepared to communicate effectively in conflict.
Whatever your own personal tendencies or emotional reactions, it’s important to train yourself to identify those conversational triggers so you can stop the escalation and start asking clarifying questions instead.
3. Ask Clarifying Questions
Think of a clarifying question as a conversational firewall that prevents the spread of conflict and misunderstanding.
Clarifying questions serve as an invitation to your partner to elaborate or refine his/her comments. When you ask a clarifying question, you’re choosing to focus on the intended meaning of sent messages instead of jumping to conclusions and escalating the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, these questions communicate that you are trying to understand. Asking clarifying questions shows that you’re willing to yield control and keep the conversation moving in a productive direction.
Here are a few tips for asking clarifying questions:
At first, keep your emphasis on the intended message, not your feelings.Communicate how you interpreted the message.Ask your conversational partner what was meant by the action or comment. Give your partner a chance to confirm, clarify, or correct your interpretation.
When you focus on the message, you increase the chances you’ll have a productive conversation and solve the actual problem at hand.
And once you’re addressing the real problem, it becomes much easier to discuss how your partner’s comments or actions made you feel. Furthermore, it’s much more likely your partner will feel respected and understood.
Consider the Difference
Take a look at the following comments and imagine yourself as the recipient. What kind of relational messages are being communicated in each example? How might you feel as a result of each comment?
“You're clearly angry about this project, but we need to keep the focus on what the team and the clients need right now.”
versus a clarifying question:
“When you made that comment earlier in our meeting, I took it to mean you were frustrated with the amount of input you’ve had on this project. Am I correct in thinking that’s how you’re feeling right now?”
“You’re obviously not pleased with my work. It seems I can’t do enough to make everyone happy so I guess I’ll just drop it.”
versus a clarifying question:
“If I’m understanding correctly, you’re thinking I need to spend more time in the planning stage and get more input from the research team. Is that right? What else have I missed?”
In each example, the first comments are full of assumptions and accusations and you can hear anger, dismissiveness, fear, shame, and defensiveness. Unless the trajectory changes in the next few conversational turns, those comments will likely lead to conflict escalation at worst and misunderstanding at best.
In the second comments, you don’t hear assumptions or accusations. You hear interpretations. You hear a genuine attempt to understand and respond in light of the intended message. You hear opportunities for effective communication and conflict management.
When you give your conversational partner a chance to clarify, you increase the chances you’ll understand the intended message. This will allow you to craft a response that contributes to the real issue at hand instead of derailing the conversation.
Asking clarifying questions doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome in your conversations. But it does allow for you to stay centered on intent and meaning, thus increasing the chances effective and efficient communication will happen.
Watch What Happens Next
Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, but if it's handled poorly, both parties will likely experience negative outcomes that derail important shared goals. If you'll implement these strategies the next time you're in conflict with someone, you'll be much better positioned to come out of it stronger and more understood.
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