Compassion in Listening

One of the interesting things that happens when one begins to coach others is that the skill being taught becomes embedded more deeply into one’s own, personal life.  As a conflict resolution professional, one of the main things I do is to coach people on how to listen to one another.  My experience is that really listening, and really hearing, is not easy and it’s not intuitive.  I certainly can’t claim to be a perfect listener.  All I can say is that I’m learning and getting better.

We all know, of course, that listening and hearing are required in order to understand the heart of what the “other” person is trying to communicate about their needs and interests that give rise to a conflict.  But often, in conflict scenarios, the parties are no longer in authentic communication.  Instead, they just talk past each other.  An additional challenge for a mediator, on top of getting the parties to listen to one another, is that it’s often the case that a person who is embroiled in a conflict situation and trying to communicate a general anger or other emotion doesn’t even fully understand his own reasons and needs, himself.  At such times, the mediator must listen twice as much.  Listen first in order to help the parties clarify what they mean and what they want to say.  Then, coach the parties in listening so that each can hear what the other is really trying to express and not just what they expect or want to hear.

Listening is a skill that takes practice, practice, practice!  The good news is that we can get better at it.

What are some tips and tools for listening?

One thing a good “listener” can do is to clean their own glass, to make the lens through which we see and hear things less intrusive.  In other words, when we remove our own preconceived notions, then we become enabled to hear more of what the other person is really trying to say and less of what we are expecting or wanting to hear.  A word to describe the process of removing one’s self (and one’s own responses) is the term “mindfulness”.  When we become mindful of our own biases, tendencies, and prejudices, then we are better able to account for those and to try to filter them out.  What the insightful mediator is doing is removing himself from the frame so that the party may have a clearer image in the mirror of his conflict and his own response to it.

The opposite of mindfulness is when we project a lot of ourselves into a conflict and hear only what relates to our own experience.  How many times have I (or you) listened to someone’s story and immediately knew what they should do?   Or how often have you heard a story and said, “The exact same thing happened to me!”  But, the exact same thing didn’t happen, and if the answer were truly so obvious the speaker would have found it already.  Personal mental responses like these are the mediation equivalent of raising a storm warning flag at a beach.  Friends who are in the position of listening to each other can be on the alert for these responses, too.  When I “know” what my friend ought to do, it means I haven’t removed myself from the story enough to really listen to them fully and presently.  If the answer is too obvious, there would be no conflict.  Since there is some countervailing view, if the answer seems too simple then it’s likely that some aspect of the conflict remains mis-understood.

Another way of knowing when we are putting too much of ourselves into a communication is when we feel tempted to interrupt, even if we only interrupt the person mentally and not physically.  How many times, when a friend is speaking, are you tempted to think ahead in your mind to how you will answer them rather than continuing to listen to them as they speak?  For me, this mental feeling is like having two lanes of traffic.  One lane of traffic in my mind is the stream of thought that is attentive to what my friend is saying, imagining with them what their experience is.  The other lane of traffic in my mind is to be thinking about how I am going to respond to what they’re saying: How does this relate to me, what I can I say about it to give them feedback?  The problem is,that mentally I can really only be in one car at a time.  If I’m already formulating the response to my friend, then I’m not really listening fully to them in the present, here and now.

So, next time your best friend is telling you about a situation and you’re tempted to give advice, think of this column.  Instead of projecting your own idea of “what is true,” or thinking “this happened to me,” and then telling the person what to do or giving them advice, try first to discern the reasons that their situation feels like to them.  Why do they perceive a conflict in the first place, what is that experience like for them?  What values, needs, and interests got them into the situation where they find themselves?

Most likely, there’s more to their situation than can be answered by a simple knee jerk reaction and response.  What our friend needs from us is not advice, but the feedback and mirroring to help them gain insight.  Then, with increased insight, our friend can find the answers from within themselves.  Answers that come from within and are authentic to lived experience are the ones that will be best in the long run.  So, the way to be a better friend is to help our friend develop capacity from within, not by imposing a solution from without.

How to do this?   Ask powerful, open ended questions of our friend, as a means to help uncover some of those underlying complexities, different perspectives, and ways of increasing understanding of the experience which is being communicated.

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