Module 3: Listening for Understanding – Section 2

The following is Section 2 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 on conflict engagement skills.


Why listening is so important

We have identified, what might be considered, a number of more philosophical reasons for engaging as an effective listener.  While these are essential, let’s now identify some more pragmatic reasons for developing this skill.  In the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey identifies the habit of “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, as a characteristic of personal effectiveness.  In the book, The Fifth Discipline:  The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge introduces a process from the work of William Argyris called “balancing advocacy and inquiry”.  What do these concepts mean in practice?

In a conversation committed to mutual purpose around a shared issue, some fundamental things need to occur.

  •  I need to understand the perspective, understanding, objectives, needs, interests around the issue held by the other person(s) – Inquiry
  • I need to share my perspective, understanding, objectives, needs, interests around the issue – Advocacy
  • We need to jointly clarify and understand where we share interests and where we might have interests separate, not necessarily opposed , to each other – Advocacy and Inquiry
  • We need to create options that, to the greatest extent possible, will meet both our shared and individual interests – Balance

When pursuing mutual purpose, mutual benefit, mutual gain, we commit to decisions and solutions that we will both find acceptable.  For this to happen I choose to understand what is important to you in addition to advocating what is important to me.  I choose to be curious.  I choose to listen for learning and understanding.

You may have noted that I started the process focusing attention on understanding of the other person.  This takes us to “seeking first to understand, then to be understood”.  This represents a fundamental choice when engaging a challenging conversation; do I advocate my perspective first or seek to understand the perspective of the other person?

In the introduction to this module I introduced the distinction between a “telling stance” and a “learning stance”.  When sharing this distinction, I often hear; “Okay, I get this and see the value.  But what if you are dealing with someone who ALWAYS takes a telling stance?”  I appreciate this question because it represents the opportunity to “be at cause” versus “at effect” in the conversation.  In this case I choose to model what I want.  I take a learning stance.  I “seek first to understand”.  I listen and I stay in this stance until you know that I have heard and understand what you have shared.  Only then are you ready to potentially take a learning stance and hear my perspective.  Choosing to listen is fundamentally a way for positively influencing the structure of the conversation.  It is an opportunity to be “at integrity” with our commitment to collaboration.

There are also a number of additional reasons sited in the literature regarding the importance of listening.  While I have alluded to many of these let me identify and clarify them specifically.

  • Listening to the other person and sharing your understanding of what has been shared lets them know if they have been heard.  People want be heard and understood.  They will often continue to repeat themselves and advocate their perspective until they know they have been heard.
  • Listening and responding allows me to clarify if what I understand you to be saying is, in fact, what you intended to communicate.
  • As I listen to you and provide feedback as to what I am hearing and understanding it facilitates your ability to share what is most important to you.  For example upon hearing my feedback you might say, “Yeah, that is what I said, and it is not really what I meant.  Let me try it again.”
  • Effective listening can defuse emotion.  People will often ask, “How do you deal with angry and hostile people?”  My typical response is, “listen to them”.  In my experience people have often escalated the anger and hostility because no one is listening to them.  While working with at-risk adolescents, I learned the impact genuine compassionate listening can have defusing a tense situation.
  • Listening encourages us to slow the conversation down.  For many who struggle with not having enough time, this may seem counter productive.  My experience is that we spend a lot of time generating solutions to problems that we have not taken sufficient time to fully understand.  We then wonder why our plan does not meet our objectives.  A favorite quote states; “Sometimes you need to slow down in order to go faster.

As a group,use the following questions to increase your understanding of the importance of listening to collaboration?

  • In what types of situations do you find it easiest to be an effective listener?
  • In what types of situations do you find it most challenging to be an effective listener?
  • Describe a situation in which you were involved where participants demonstrated effective listening.  What became possible for this group?  What was the group able to achieve that might not otherwise have been possible?
  • Where, specifically, are you committed to improving effectiveness with this skill?  What action will you take to achieve this improvement?







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