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Listening--A Tool for Resolving Conflict

Having a difficulty with another person?

Having a hard time being understood and being heard?

Continually we find conflict resolution experts recommending that we should first try to listen and understand the other person before we will be understood and listened to.

Below you will find suggestions from some experts.

Listening Defuses Conflict

When done effectively, listening to try to understand another person . . .

-- stops arguments and defuse strong emotions,

-- helps the other person feel heard,

-- helps the other person to listen to you,

-- helps you persuade the other person,

-- improves relationships.

“One of the most common complaints we hear from people engaged in difficult conversations is that the other person won’t listen. And when we hear that our standard advice is ‘You need to spend more time listening to them.’ . . . The reason the other person is not listening to you is not because they are stubborn, but because they don’t feel heard.” (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, New York: Penguin Books, 2000, p.166-168.) 

“Not all listening promotes effective communication. The type of listening that breeds connection is almost always related to a genuine desire to understand what others are trying to communicate. Listening, even if focused and energetic, that is mostly motivated by desire to debate, argue, convince, or discount, is likely to lead to further conflict and distance.”  (Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2000, p. 156-157, 127.)  

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood. . . . To feel understood is the deepest psychological need. . . . Understanding comes through listening. . . . Most people listen with the intent to respond instead of listening with the intent to understand.” (Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Training Manual, p.123-128) 

Barriers to Listening

Larry K. Langlois, a marriage and family counselor from Pasedena, California, gives the following do’s and don’ts to effective listening (“When Couples Don’t Listen to Each Other,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 16):

-- Being judgmental:  The fastest way to stop a person from talking, especially about painful and difficult subjects, is to criticize him.

-- Confusing understanding with agreement:  Understanding what someone is saying doesn’t mean that you agree with him. Whether you agree is not the issue in the listening process.

-- Confusing listening with discussing:  Listening is a one-way process; it involves hearing and understanding a message that another person is conveying. Discussing, on the other hand, is a two-way interchange of ideas. While discussion involves listening skills, the art of listening is important in its own right and must sometimes be used alone. . . . Effective listening requires full attention, rather than the rapid switching between listening and talking that is involved in discussion. This rapid switching can preclude the more intensive, careful listening that allows a person to reveal his feelings. . . . When a person is frustrated by not being heard, the remedy is for someone to listen, not to talk.

-- Confusing listening with problem-solving:  To listen is to understand, not to propose solutions. Helping to find solutions might be a next step, but it is not part of the listening process. In fact, it may even interfere with helpful listening.

-- Indulging the need to correct errors: When people are expressing strong feelings, they often exaggerate or overstate the facts—sometimes in anger and with accusations. As we listen, we need to concentrate on hearing the message, rather than on correcting the facts. . . . Some people believe that all they need to do is get the other person to understand the facts. But when strong emotions are involved, the facts are often not the issue. Being too eager to correct errors and clarify facts may interfere with understanding.

-- Blocking:  It’s easy to misunderstand a message when we really don’t want to hear it. No matter how clearly it is stated, we can reject, reinterpret, or fail to comprehend an unpleasant message. . . . When we as listeners have already made up our minds about something, we may block out messages that do not fit our expectations. Disappointment, anxiety, fear, or other negative emotions can also block out even the clearest messages. Instead of projecting our feelings onto what someone is telling us, we need to concentrate on hearing the speaker’s feelings.

Listening Techniques

-- Showing genuine caring:  When we are discussing trivial or general topics—like the weather or sports—it’s not so important to show a great deal of concern. But as topics get more emotional, painful, or potentially threatening, a genuine caring attitude becomes more important. Few people will share their inner thoughts or emotions unless they feel that the listener cares about them. Curiosity, badgering, threats, and use of authority are all poor substitutes for honest caring.

-- Commenting occasionally:  Give brief summary statements once in a while as you listen. This assures the person that you’re hearing and comprehending his message and allows him to correct misperceptions.

-- Reading nonverbal messages: Only about 30 percent of our communication is verbal; the rest is nonverbal. In other words, most of the messages we convey to others are communicated by facial expression, body language, voice inflections, positioning, and other nonverbal means. Even a simple phrase like “How about that!” can express disgust, anger, humor, surprise, or interest by the way it is said.

-- Listening for feelings:  As noted earlier, people often talk about facts when the real issue has to do with feelings. Often the context, not the words, conveys the real feeling. For example, the statement “The sun is shining” is short and factual. If said after a devastating storm that has caused flooding, injury, and death, the emotional message is more dramatic and significant than the factual one. . . . People often express powerful emotions indirectly or imprecisely. The context of the discussion often conveys feelings and emotion beyond the meaning of the words.

-- Setting aside your own emotional reaction:  Sometimes, what a person says to you will have great emotional impact on you. To listen successfully, you must set aside your own emotional reactions and concentrate on comprehending his message. . . . Listening is basic to all relationships. The better listening skills we have, the better equipped we are to develop healthy, fulfilling relationships. 

The Lord urges us to “be still and know that I am God.” (D&C 101:16) This suggests that we cannot understand God or hear whatever message he might have for us if we are unwilling to be still and listen. By implication, we cannot understand anyone else or hear what they have to say unless we are willing to set aside our own concerns, postpone trying to convey messages, be still, and listen.