Active Listening: The Most Undervalued Skill in Conflict Situations

If you want to resolve conflicts, both scientific studies and numerous experience reports show that there is a particular skill that can make or break your efforts: active listening.

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Active listening is a technique that helps you establish a foundation of trust and understanding with the conflicting parties and to surface information about their needs and interests. And as you will learn below, it’s much harder to acquire than it sounds.

What is active listening – and can you do it?

Listening isn’t exactly rocket science, right? All you have to do is to be quiet and hear what the person you’re listening to has to say, right? Wrong. There are actually different quality levels of listening – and only active listening, the highest form, will help you in conflict situations. Why don’t you challenge yourself: Next time a friend or colleague is telling you something, try to remember what goes on in your head while they are talking and how you react to them.

Then compare your thoughts and actions with the following four quality levels:

Level 1:

You can sort of hear what the other person is saying, but you’re really just waiting for your turn to speak, for an opportunity (like a pause) to jump in and say what’s been on your mind while you were waiting for the other person to finish their monologue.

Level 2:

You understand what the other person means and you can relate it to your own situation. You can’t wait to tell them all about it, about what happened to you, how it felt for you, and how the story ended. Unfortunately, you forget that this was about the other person, not you.

Level 3:

You appreciate the other person’s situation and their problem. You have great ideas of how to solve the issue and offer your advice – even if the other person didn’t explicitly ask for it.

Level 4:

You listen actively. According to Dr. Stephen R. Covey, this means: “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” In other words: You dedicate your sole attention to the other person and their story.

If you want to reach the highest level, you need a unique set of sub-skills which put together constitute active listening. This includes knowing how to summarize stories, reframe negative statements, re-phrase statements to enhance clarity, reflect on descriptions to uncover underlying emotions, encourage the other person with non-verbal and minimal verbal prompts – and, more than anything, knowing which questions to ask.

It’s question time

In order to detect the interests and needs of the other person, you need to ask the right questions.

There are four question styles that are most important in this context:

High-gain questions:

Those are questions you ask in the beginning to get as much insight and information about the other person’s side of the story as possible (“How did it all begin, in your view?”)

Reflective questions:

These are hypothetical scenarios you use to put the listener in a new situation and change perspectives. This often helps people with self-reflection because the scenario creates a distance to their behavior and actions that normally isn’t there. Example: “If I asked your best friend, what do you think they would say are your best qualities in the workplace?”

Scaled questions:

These are questions that help you measure the severity of a problem or the importance of a certain aspect for the other person: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how much does it bother you that… ?”

Hypothetical questions:

Those questions are similar to reflective questions – but the goal in this case is to detach the listener from the constraints of the present and allow access to imagination and vision for the future: “What would your ideal solution look like if it was only up to you?”

As you can see, active listening is a complex skill which needs to be acquired and continuously honed. But if you are in a position where it’s your responsibility to resolve conflicts – as a people manager or as a Human Resource consultant, for instance – being a good active listener will make all the difference.

If you would like to read more about the topic of active listening and conflict situations, then download the Premium eBook Intercultural mediation at work by Susanne Schuler. Also, have a look at our website bookboon.com where you’ll find many more Premium eBooks.

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