Attentive Listening in Conflict Situations


The world can sometimes be a scrambled mess of noise and humans in an endeavour to survive the overload of sound have learned how to filter out those voices that they do not want to hear. “Are you listening to me ?” is the frequent lament of a disgruntled spouse as the other spouse aimlessly flicks through the channels amid the blare of ensuing noise.  Listening and hearing are at times on opposite ends of a continuum. Hearing is something that ears do, it is part of the five senses. To listen well and attentively on the other hand has much to do with becoming SILENT, and it is clearly of no little coincidence that the two words share the same letters

L-I-S-T-E-N     =     S-I-L-E-N-T


So how does one listen effectively and with attentiveness, especially in cases where there is conflict and all one really wants to do is put forward one’s own viewpoint and then duck before the other party has a chance to think of a clever retort or worse still, a clever and justified come-back?


The first thing that the listener needs to do in a conflict situation is to realize that the power to end the conflict and the conflictual conversation is in fact in their hands. By listening attentively to what the other party is saying and to reflect back what has been heard is one of the most effective ways to reduce the speaker’s heightened levels of emotionality around that issue.


Listening whilst a party spills out their position and perspective going off on a tirade is an exercise in extreme self-control and requires what William Ury, the noted Harvard Negotiator calls The Act of Going to The Balcony” or the process of becoming emotionally disengaged from the conflict.


The Golden Rule for Attentive Listening is:-

  • Do Not Interrupt the Speaker, if the discussion is becoming long-winded there is nothing incorrect with using your body language to gently show that person their singular discussion needs to come to end so that you too can have a chance to speak
  • Do Not Finish Off the Speaker’s Sentence (even if you have heard it all before)
  • Do Not Take Your Focus Off the Speaker


Having disengaged emotionally from the issue and having followed these golden rules and heard what the Speaker has to say,  how does one then reflect back to a speaker what has been heard?


As a starting point do not say: “There you go on again about the same issue which you spoke about at length on last night …” but rather start by using the old cliche and saying  “What I am hearing you say is ….. “or to be a bit more adventurous one could use as a starter, “It seems to me that what you are saying is that ……” or  ” It appears to me from what you are saying is that the issue of XYZ is bothering you because of 123″


The desired outcomes from reflecting back to a person what they have said is that :

  1. they will in all probability acknowledge in a satisfied (and appeased) tone the correctness thereof – perhaps with a slight variation in case it is slightly wrong or off-tack
  2. the heightened emotionality of the situation will definitely be reduced
  3. the speaker will give the hearer a chance to put forward their perspective on the problem
  4. the speaker having witnessed the hearer hearing them out, they will in all probability models that behaviour and listen to what the new speaker has to say.


It sounds quite simplistic – but it works.


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