There are a lot of ways to handle conflict. A popular one is to escalate them by avoiding the contentious subject, shouting at people who disagree with you, and other fun things like that.
But if you’d like to, I don’t know, reduce the pain and agony of your next conflict, then active listening is your quickest and most effective way to do so.
There are a lot of ways to define active listening, but at its core, it involves being fully engaged, listening attentively, paraphrasing what you’ve heard to ensure comprehension and a mutual understanding of the situation, and withholding judgment and advice. It is essentially the complete opposite of patiently waiting for the other person to finally stop talking so that you can say whatever it is you want to say. Active listening is not a complicated skill to master, but it does require you to follow a few basic rules:
Offer Your Undivided Attention
Put your phone away. Don’t let your mind wander while the other person is talking. Simply focusing your attention on the other person will help that person realize that you really do care about what they have to say – and that by itself is likely to reduce whatever tension may have been building.
If a problem is developing, everyone involved needs to know what the problem is before a solution is possible. And if something’s bothering you, odds are it’s not going to get better if you can’t even tell others what’s bothering you. So make sure you let people finish whatever it is they have to say – even when (as will probably happen more than you would like) it takes them longer to say it than you think it should.
Summarize What You Hear
This isn’t exactly about listening per se – but once you have listened, the best way to let others know that you really did hear what they were saying is to say it back to them. Not word-for-word, of course, but a quick recap will ensure that everyone understands where everyone else is coming from.
One of the easiest ways to know if you’re actively listening is to recognize what’s happening in your head as the other person is talking. Is your mind wandering? Are you already preparing what you’re going to say when they stop talking? If you’re truly engaged in listening, your mind will be focused on the other person’s words and responses.
You’ll also want to pay attention to your body language, since listening is a non-verbal skill. So remember to maintain an appropriate distance from your conversation partner. Being too close can feel awkward or intimidating, and being too far away can suggest that you’re not especially interested in what you’re supposedly listening to.
You’ll also want to pay attention to your posture. Ideally your body will be open and facing the person or people you’re listening to. Try to avoid crossing your arms, closing yourself off, facing the wrong direction, or anything else that suggests you’re devoting your attention to something or someone else.
Again, the goal of active listening is to project a calm, steady respect for the other party, which can de-escalate a difficult situation all by itself. And who knows? Maybe you’ll end up hearing something worth hearing. Crazy idea, I know, but it has happened before.
This article was adapted from our online training course, Conflict De-Escalation.