Listening is an essential part of handling difficult conversations and dealing with conflict, possibly the most important skill in these situations.
Listening is a difficult thing to do well and in our everyday conversations we listen in a way to promote the flow of a conversation. In conflict situations we are encouraged to listen in a different way – listen to understand. We put our conversational listening style to one side and focus on the speaker with the purpose of fully understanding their point of view. This is sometimes called dialogue.
When dealing with a conflict situation it helps to be open to the fact that we don’t have the full picture and maybe the person we are speaking to has a contribution to our appreciation of the wider truth. To encourage us to listen for the wider truth we have developed a simple model for listening – the Hear, Understand, Expand listening cycle, or HUE for short. This is a simple idea where we first need to hear the other person, understand their point of view and help them expand their awareness to come closer to the wider truth. Of course this is a two way process - by listening to others we expand our own understanding of the wider truth.
One of the most effective things we can do in a conflict situation where perhaps the emotional mind has hijacked the human mind is to simply listen to the other person without interrupting. This gives the person an opportunity to express their viewpoint and hear themselves without the concern that they are about to be interrupted. It is not uncommon that as we express our viewpoint we clarify our thoughts and adjust our point of view.
While sometimes it is enough to simply listen, most often we want to indicate to the other person that we have heard them. This shows that we are interested in what they say and value their point of view. To show that we have heard them we can reflect back to them what we have heard by repeating key words and phrases they have used. We can also summarise what they have said.
Hearing what someone has said does not necessarily mean we have understood their point of view. To get to the wider truth we need to understand them. This will usually mean asking questions to seek clarification, summarising our understanding and seeking confirmation that we have understood correctly.
In the early part of a conversation we may cycle back and forth between these two stages; hearing what the person says, clarifying that we have understood and then listen some more, and so on. This simple cycle is a good way to start a conversation as it helps build trust by showing that we want to understand a person’s point of view.
As we have spent time hearing what another has to say and taken the time to understand their point of view, we should have built up a level of trust. This helps when we wish to move on and to get closer to the wider truth by expanding the dialogue.
Trust helps us approach the expand part of a conversation with an appropriate state of mind – one where we acknowledge that we only have part of the truth and are seeking the wider truth and therefore aspects of the wider truth will emerge during the dialogue. It helps to acknowledge that emerging aspects have not been thought through - we are in effect thinking out loud.
We can expand a topic in a number of ways, we can;
- describe more about an aspect
- go into more detail
- look at how an aspect contributes to the bigger picture
- look for connected aspects
- go back in time
- project forward in time
Questions that help us understand and expand
A good starting point for understanding someone is to use the ‘standard’ six open questions; who, what, where, when, how and why.
However, while this gives some ideas on how to phrase our questions we can look at some specific questions that help. Some of these have come from the Clean Language approach.
- what kind of XXX is that?
- Is there anything else about XXX? or, what else about XXX?
- Is there a relationship between X and Y?
- When X happens what happens to Y?
- (And) then what happens? or, (And) what happens next?
- (And) what happens just before X?
- (And) where could X come from?
- (And) what would X like to have happen? or, (And) what needs to happen for X?
- (And) can X (happen)?