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Mindful Listening

“Any problem, big or small, within a family always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.”
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— Emma Thompson

When conflict persists and festers within families, or between friends or colleagues, it is likely neither party is listening.

This series on the topic of emotional intelligence has explored the importance of expressing vulnerability in order that others might support rather than oppose our needs. In this final segment, let’s examine how to listen to one another. The combination promises to result in win-win problem solving.

Without listening, communication cannot occur, others cannot know our needs, nor can we understand theirs. Moreover, we are likely to assume that it is the other person who isn’t listening, when in fact we are equally at fault. There is a popular joke that highlights this blindspot,

There was a man who was very concerned about his wife’s loss of hearing. He spoke with their family physician, who agreed to order a hearing test. “I’ll be glad to do that, but it may take a month or so to book that consultation. In the meantime,” the doctor said, “here is a simple test you do at home that may offer some early confirmation. Go somewhere in the house about 40 feet from where you wife is and speak to her in a normal conversational tone and volume. See if she hears you. If not, approach about 10 feet closer, and try again. If not, then come forward another 10 feet, repeat.”
The man thanked his doctor and went home, curious to try this test. That afternoon while his wife was in the kitchen, he moved to a spot about 40 feet away in the living room, and at a good conversational level asked, “What’s for dinner, honey?” No answer. He approached ten feet, repeated the question, still no reply. He moved ten feet closer into the dining room and tried again. She remained with her back to him and did not respond. He moved to the edge of the kitchen, just ten feet away, and asked again. No answer. Finally, a bit discouraged, he walked up behind her, put his hand gently on her back and asked, “What’s for dinner, sweetie?”
She turned, looked squarely at him and said, “For the fifth time, we’re having chicken casserole!”

Often we do not realize that the breakdown in communication comes because of our own difficulty listening.

What inhibits our ability to listen? Mind-reading seems to be the biggest culprit. In couples’ counselling clients frequently demonstrate how they stop themselves from listening. I observe signs of a wall going up by one party when their partner raises a hot topic: eye-rolling, stiffening posture, interrupting, or sighs of exasperation. At the first hint of conflict, they might think to themselves, “I know where he/she is going with this…” and start preparing their rebuttal. What do they miss hearing once they adopt such a defensive posture? Their partner’s vulnerability.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
— Stephen Covey

The healthy alternative is to train ourselves to hear our partner and listen for the vulnerability that exists within — and sometimes in between — their words. When we view conflict through a win-lose lens, however, empathy is not our goal, winning is. Consequently, we distort our understanding of others’ intentions to bring them into line with our expectation. We will suspect the motive of others, even if to do so means that we will twist their intention 180 degrees opposite to their statement to us.

The simplest method to change this pattern is to practice Reflective Listening, first introduced by the renowned psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950’s. The art of reflective listening is to repeat back to the speaker what you heard them say, to do so without distortion.

Sometimes others will share their vulnerability — worry or sadness — directly with us, something their words will more indirectly hint at it. Either way, it is helpful to reflect the vulnerability you hear and/or imagine. If you err, don’t worry, they will correct you. If you overlook it, however, then you will miss the heart of the issue and your discussion may degenerate into an argument about whose interpretation of reality is more accurate.

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The practice of Reflective Listening was subsequently refined for couples by Harville Hendrix as a Reciprocal Listening exercise. One person begins by sharing their concern with their partner (this can be effective in resolving conflict with a family member or friend as well as spouse). The partner is to listen without interruption. When the first person is finished, the partner can then reflect what he or she has heard — without editing or censoring. The first person then corrects if needed, repeating what was missed or incorrectly heard, the partner then paraphrases what they missed or erred upon. This continues until the first person is satisfied that they have been heard. Then their partner has the opportunity to express their own perspective on the problem, repeating the exercise as described above.

The goal of this exercise in listening is not necessarily to resolve the conflict, but rather to ensure that both parties understand one another. Often, solutions will appear once understanding is improved. This is a basic principle in conflict resolution; the initial focus is for each party to accurately understand one another.

From that point, how then do we act next to find a win-win solution? ‘Blue-sky’ brainstorming can be engaged wherein each person can suggest any idea, no matter how far-fetched, that satisfies the needs of both parties. Moving away from my-preference(-that-suits-my-wish) vs your-preference(-that-satisfies-your-wish), the couple can alternatively suggest one idea after another that satisfies the needs of both.

An example to pull it all together…

For instance, imagine that my partner and I have just spent several days cleaning up damage caused by a sewer back-up. Now my partner wants to go out for brunch and I want to stay in and have a simple oatmeal breakfast. Both irritated by time spent mopping and drying, that simple disagreement leads to a ‘curt and hurt’ exchange of words. After taking a time-out, we return to try the reciprocal listening technique. I learn that my partner is feeling claustrophobic having spent the better part of three days indoors with me while I, remembering to be vulnerable, acknowledge my underlying worry over this unexpected and costly repair that, as a consequence, whether or not we will be able to cover our bills this month. We brainstorm three possible solutions that might satisfy both of our vulnerable needs; (1) I could prepare an extravagant breakfast for my partner with everything I can find in the kitchen, served in the back yard, (2) we could pack a picnic basket with granola, fruit, yogurt, and a full coffee thermos and have ‘breakfast in the park’, or (3) we could enjoy a quick bite at home before leaving for a good morning walk to our favorite coffee shop. We agree that the breakfast picnic in the park appeals to us both and the conflict is settled to our mutual satisfaction.

So, I hope this series on the topic of vulnerability has been helpful. Next time you encounter a conflict with a child or spouse, friend or colleague, try to remember there is a win-win solution available. Begin by taking a step back from blame and sharing, instead, vulnerability. In turn, listen to one another and look for a solution that meets the needs of each of you. As Barbara Coloroso once said,

“There is no problem so great that we cannot find a solution.”

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