Separating Conflict from Combat: Listening to Understand

In Part 1, we looked at different perceptions of conflict, and how people’s different levels of tolerance for conflict-based anxiety can have a huge impact on how they respond to it. Today, let’s look at key steps to take to approach the issue in conflict collaboratively and constructively, so that conflict doesn’t have to lead to combat.

Remember that the conflict intensity continuum looks like this:

conflict vs combat

The rule of thumb is that in order to keep conflict at the level of civil discussion, everyone has to feel safe, trusting that they will not be punished for honesty, and that their message will be heard. The further to the left of the continuum you can stay, the less anxiety and greater the feeling of safety both people will feel.

Here are four steps to take to keep your conversation as far to the left as possible, and ensure mutually respectful discussion and positive outcome.

Step 1: Listen to Understand

The biggest mistake people make when they disagree with someone is to focus on proving that they are right, or “winning.” As a result, when they listen what they’re really doing is listening for a place to interrupt. And when both people take this approach, tension escalates because both are thinking, “You’re not listening to me!”

Rather than assuming that you already know what they’re going to say and why, try going into it with the assumption that you’re missing some crucial piece of information that would explain their motivations, intentions and actions. Then stop talking and truly listen, asking minimal questions only to clarify something you don’t understand, not to contradict, in search of that missing piece.

Step 2: Take Notes

Part of why listening to understand is difficult is because as you listen, you think of comments you want to make, questions you want to ask, or points of theirs that you want to correct, and you don’t want to forget them.

The simple solution is to literally take notes – not transcription – of any important point you want to remember to address later, then hold your tongue and keep listening. There’s a good chance that the other person will eventually answer your questions before you even ask, and clarify other points as well.

Then, when they are done explaining their side, confirm what you think they said. Do NOT comment on anything at this point. If they said that the moon is made of cheese, all you report back to them is, “You said that the moon is made of cheese, right?” Be careful to avoid any eye-roll, sneer, or exasperated tone of voice. Then let them correct anything as necessary, whether something they realize they said wrong, or something you misunderstood.

Nobody likes to be interrupted, so when you allow them to speak and get their whole point across to their own satisfaction, and confirm that you have heard what they said, they feel respected and satisfied that they have expressed themselves fully and been heard. This builds trust and promotes civil exchange.

Step 3: Help THEM Listen to Understand

Separating conflict from combatNow it’s your turn to provide whatever information you still want to share. Request explicitly that they hold any questions or comments until you finished, as you did for them, and offer them paper to take any notes they want so they don’t forget what they wanted to say.

Do your best to be objective, diplomatic and not emotional as you make your points. Then ask them first to confirm what they understood your main points to be, clarifying as necessary.

Step 4: Seek Solutions Together

Once you have each shared your sides and shown the other person that you truly did hear and understand what they said, then you can collaboratively and safely work to find solutions that meet everyone’s needs, while respecting and preserving the value of the relationship.