I am sure all of us have been here before. You are in the middle of what you feel is a constructive and robust discussion and the other person blurts out, with complete exasperation, "You're just not listening to me".
Conflict in the workplace is somewhat inevitable and can be healthy for advancing diversity of thought; finding solutions to complex problems; or resolving misunderstandings. This could be in the form of 2 colleagues arguing over the right course of action, or it could be a customer - supplier relationship and argument over project performance and delivery issues.
When it gets to the point where the parties involved are not really listening to each other we are really in a holding pattern, on a journey to nowhere, or potentially a downward spiral.
The key elements here are patience, discipline, respect, and the ability to hold space for each other.
Here is some advice that can help you significantly in the workplace as well as being a powerful approach for maintaining loving relationships with their significant others.
Willingness to collaborate
The key tip is to understand and remember that the other person will be substantially more willing and ready to look for a collaborative solution as soon as they feel heard and understood.
Stephen Covey introduced us to this concept in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - "Seek first to understand, then to be understood".
Next time you find yourself in this situation try just holding space for the other person and giving them a good damn listening to.
This may take time; this may take patience.
Listen without judgement
During this listening phase, we do not need to agree with the other person and in fact we may not agree. However, we need to listen without judgement. Their perspective and their feelings are very real for them and we are listening to understand not to agree. We need to practice both cognitive and emotional empathy. What is the person seeing from their angle? What are they feeling about the situation? How significant is this for them?
Let them talk. Let them get everything off their chest. If you interpret you may not have let them get to the real issue for them. You may be just responding to symptoms of the real problem or just content that is not the real substance of the issue.
A funny thing in human behaviour is that it is often the very first and very last thing they say that will be most important to them.
The first thing out of their mouth will often be what is immediately on their mind and have an element of emotion to it. They will then go into a period of building up to the real issue. What they are doing here is testing you. They are testing how you are reacting and testing whether you are judging them. They are building up the courage to tell you what is really concerning them.
If you interrupt you may miss the most important issue or challenge that is troubling them.
Don't get defensive
This is challenging and does require discipline and patience. If they are saying things that you really do not agree with, do not react at this point. Let them go; let them finish; and remember that this is their perspective of what they are seeing and feeling.
If you get defensive, you may end up spiraling into an argument on a point that is not the real issue yet.
This also includes watching your body language. If you find yourself shaking your head you are going to alter the course of the conversation. When you are shaking your head you may not be listening anymore; they will feel you are not listening; and they may hold back of sharing the whole story for them.
Stay Curious Longer
Once you are sure that they have gotten everything out, the next step is to stay curious and ask some open and exploratory questions using clean language.
You are looking to double check you have completely understood what they are saying.
Examples, could include "when you say x, what you does x mean for you?" or "what makes x important to you?"
The use of clean language is important. It is the ability to ask questions that do not pre-suppose an answer. This takes practice.
Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. Avoid the temptation of letting your mind drift to thinking of what you have to say. Stay in that curious space for as long as possible to ensure you have truly uncovered what is the real challenge from them.
Now it’s your turn
Once you have given someone a good damn listening to, they are now ready to hear from you. You will now have the advantage of starting your message from a point of understanding the other person’s concerns and desires.
Call to action
The next time you find yourself in an argument with someone and you find that neither party is listening to each other take the time to pause and hold space for them. Let them get everything off their chest and work from there. I am sure you will then find yourself on the way to a workable solution.