Module 3: Listening for Understanding – Section 1

The following is Section 1 from Module 3 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University.  These modules are a good resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.

It’s about “doing” AND “being” when Listening

Many have participated in training focused on the skill of Active Listening. There is significant value in training of this nature and we will focus more specifically on development of this skill.  However, before doing so, it is important to identify two critical dimensions of effective listening.  Let me explain what I mean.

Often, when introducing the notion of active listening in a professional development context, a participant will raise their hand and state something like, “Oh yeah I know what that is.  I hate it when people do that to me”.  When asked to explain, they typically describe someone who has learned to “do” active listening while not really understanding what it means to “be” an active listener.  In many cases the person has learned a basic formula for responding which encourages letting the speaker know you are listening with a statement such as:  “So you’re feeling ____________ (name the emotion) because _____________ (state the reason).”

While, at a fundamental level, this may be a perfectly appropriate response, it is often perceived as disingenuous when delivered in a formulaic fashion.  In other words, the person is perceived as just going through the motions.

A second experience described is someone listening just long enough to hear the flaw in your reasoning or when they have identified their point of disagreement with what you are sharing.  Once this happens you can almost see the person disengage from the conversation.  While their eyes may still be on you, behind those eyes they are busy preparing a rebuttal to what they have heard.

The impact of these same words can shift when they are delivered by someone who is truly engaged in “being” an active listener.  In this case their listening and responding is driven by a deep commitment to understanding and learning.  They are not simply going through the motions.  They are listening from a place of mutual respect and curiosity.  They are listening from a desire to learn.  They are listening from a true desire to understand.  They have shifted from a “telling stance” to a “learning stance” as described in the introduction to this module.

In Module 2 we introduced the notion of shifting your orientation to a challenging conversation from:

  • Certainty to Curiosity
  • Debate to Exploration
  • Simplicity to Complexity
  • “Either/Or” Thinking to “And” Thinking

It is this shift in orientation that is essential to move from doing active listening to truly being an active listener.  This is where time spent in preparation can significantly change our engagement in the conversation.

Fundamentally it is about bringing our listening into integrity with our commitment to collaboration and mutual purpose.  As we shared in Module 2, we are operating “in integrity” when our intentions, actions, and speaking are all in alignment.  When asked to describe the value in collaboration, many will quickly state the value found in diversity of opinion.  In fact, many groups and teams will identify respect for diversity of opinion as a core shared value.  My experience however, is that this is true only until the diversity shows up.  Basic civility appears to go out the window with the arrival of diverse opinions about high stakes, complex and often emotional issues.

Listening respectfully for understanding is essential to collaboration and mutual purpose.  This is not about agreement or disagreement.  It’s about listening in order to expand our thinking.  It is about listening such that we expand our “shared pool of understanding”.  It is about listening in such a way that we leverage our individual thinking into shared thinking.

As a group,use the following questions to increase your understanding of “being” an effective listener:

  • Describe a time when you felt listened to and understood.  What did you experience?
  • Identify a situation when you have found yourself “doing” active listening.  What was the impact on the conversation?
  • Describe a situation when you found yourself “being” an active listener?  What difference did it make in the conversation?
  • What contributed to your ability to make the shift?

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