The biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand.
We listen to reply.
Recently, my 11-year-old son and I had a fight. It wasn’t the first time (insert wry tone and smile here). It went something like this. My son became aware that our neighbour had made a comment about his own son and my son, who are close friends, which might be considered insulting.
Except it wasn’t. It was made in jest, equal parts amusement and affection. So, what was the nature of the comment, you ask?
“Little boys are daft.”
Okay, so maybe it was a bit insulting.
But…to be fair, the boys had just spent the better part of an hour carrying on in all manner of raucousness in the neighbours’ basement (as young lads are wont to do) and had just broken something or lost something or mildly injured themselves…I can’t quite remember…but you get the idea. That said, no serious damage was done and that’s why, when my neighbour made his comment with a big grin and good-natured tone, I knew he meant to entertain me rather than inflict harm on anyone.
But…That’s not how my son heard it. At all.
He was insulted. And, yes, he took umbrage. And he was not shy about expressing that indignation to me. Repeatedly. Which is when I began to take umbrage (what’s that expression about the apple and the tree?). Indeed, as soon as he started to complain about the situation, I realize now that I mentally dropped out of the moment – that is, I left consciously being present to my son’s experience – and instead went to my own inner world and thought something along the lines of:
“Oh, boy, here we go again! Time for another freak out about nothing…”
And, whaddyaknow, pretty soon after thinking these thoughts I believe I actually said something out loud like:
“Okay, okay, just relax. He didn’t mean anything by it, he likes both you guys.”
Over the years, I have found it extremely helpful (not!) to tell annoyed people to “just relax.” It goes with other effective (not!) defusing phrases such as “calm down” or “I think you’re over reacting.”
Seriously, although we surely know that these reactions to agitation almost always escalate the situation further, it is sometimes hard to avoid succumbing to them. I mean, we don’t want the person to be feeling the way they are. So, first we mentally try to argue the other person out of that state and, at that very moment, we are no longer really listening. From there, it’s a short trip to verbally arguing with them.
And the counter-reaction from them is predictable, is it not? In my son’s case, while I was “explaining” to him why he shouldn’t be having the reaction he was having, I suspect he was following my role modelling to a “T”. He too was dropping out and mentally arguing instead of hanging in there with me and trying to listen. And soon after came his own verbal countermand:
“Yeah, so what if I said to you, ‘Adults are daft!’, huh? How’d you like that, papa?!” he shouted at me.
“Don’t shout at me.”
“I’m not shouting! I’m just saying…”
“You are shouting, and you need to stop it…now!” I shouted.
He bolted to his room (insert BIG sigh here…).
About fifteen minutes later, after I’d retreated to my office on the second floor to give myself a time out, I got to thinking. No, I mean literally. You see, the blood had now returned to my forebrain and the adrenalin of our confrontational encounter had tapered off enough to enable me to begin to re-assess. Sober second thoughts, along with some parenting regrets, were emerging.
In this calmer state I realized that I had utterly failed to truly listen to my son. And so, predictably, he had failed to listen to me. It seemed so obvious now.
While I was doing my re-think, he re-emerged from his room and I heard him, still agitated, now re-engaging the issue with my spouse. While he was not as loud as he had been and I couldn’t make out the words, I could hear the continuing urgency in his voice followed by the dulcet tones of his mother.
Then I got an idea (hey, what can I say, my brain was now re-involved!).
Using my cell phone, I called our downstairs home line. My spouse answered. I asked her to tell my son that his 10-minute appointment time had arrived and I was ready for him (note: I was making this up, there was no appointment!). My wife immediately (and not without some amusement) conveyed the message to my son.
Ninety seconds later there was a tentative tap at my door.
He: “Uh, do I have an appointment?”
Me: “Yes, yes you do. Thanks for coming. Sorry to keep you waiting. Welcome here.”
He: “Umm, okay…” (still looking a bit confused but also a tad amused, he now entered and perched himself tentatively on the edge of the futon).
Me: “So, I’ve been thinking about what you were trying to say to me earlier…”
He: “Yeah…” (still looking wary).
Me: “Yup, and here’s the thing: I messed up.”
He: “Okay…” (now visibly warming to the moment).
Me: “Yeah, I messed up because I did not listen to you. So, if it’s okay, I want to use some of your ten-minute appointment to listen to you now. If it’s not too late.”
He: “Umm,” visibly relaxing and brightening even more, “yeah, okay…”
And so he went through it all again. But this time, instead of dropping out, I fully attended to him. Leaning forward in my office chair, I tracked him – mentally, emotionally, physically – and, re-born as active listener, I even included some minimal prompters (“Mm-hmm” & “right…”) and follow-ups (“Okay, so you were startled…”).
And this time, lo and behold, I noticed that his volume was lower, he was repeating himself less, and he’d begun to smile here and there and even laughed a few times. After only about 2 or 3 minutes of this (seriously!), I said something summative along the lines of:
Me: “Okay, so let me see if I’ve got this. Even if the neighbour was joking around, you felt insulted by the language he used. The problem was amplified when I dismissed your concern, and I triggered you further…”
He: “Yes!” he replied emphatically, laughing again and looking visibly relieved.
At this point, he actually got up and, of his own accord, came over to sit on my lap with his hand resting comfortably on my shoulder (true story!).
Well, now I was feeling a lot better too. Calmer. Saner. More adult. I then also briefly shared what had triggered me. After a short pause, he concluded our talk:
“I’m sorry, papa.”
Okay, what a nice little family story, right? But what does it have to do with you? In his 2007 book, Why Good People Do Bad Things, author and psychologist James Hollis wrote the following:
“In any frightened, urgent child we see our profoundly human core – grasping, needy, insistent, necessarily narcissistic. That child is never left behind. The only question is, to what degree does it play a part in the daily dance of self and other? And who among us could ever escape a profound longing for nurturance, satiety, and security? Why should we realistically think it would disappear simply because we now occupy bigger bodies in bigger roles in bigger settings?”
My experience as a parent, a professional workplace mediator, and a human being who experiences conflict of my own are all 100% in keeping with Hollis’ observation. All of us need to be heard. Being truly heard, rather than dismissed, is core to feeling safe, accepted, and competent, regardless of one’s age. When these elements are not in place – whether in the family, workplace, or community – relational trouble is never far behind.
During the last week, I co-facilitated 3 interpersonal workplace mediations sessions. In each case, people feeling dismissed – unheard and unseen – over an extended period of time was core to the problem. In each case, both parties had repeated the exact pattern of interaction outlined in my father-son story above: initial triggering followed by “dropping out” of a listening stance in favour of, first, mental arguing and then actual bickering ultimately leading to even more misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and bad blood. In all three cases the parties involved had stopped speaking with one another entirely prior to our being called in to assist.
The good news?
In all three situations, the parties were able to recover. And in all three cases their new understanding was borne of listening. The people involved were able to break the previously ingrained pattern of mental arguing in favour of hanging in there to actively demonstrate that they were attending to what each other had experienced and had to say. In all three cases we as mediators helped the parties to use the very same skill I used with my boy: the act of simply re-stating in their own words the facts and feelings that they had heard the other expressing. And in all three situations this simple (but not easy!) act of truly listening proved transformative.
When I teach this “go to” skill (sometimes called paraphrasing) I sometimes describe it as the “one wood” or “putter” of your conflict resolution golf bag (note: for those who’ve never golfed, these two clubs are absolutely indispensible tools; success without them, while not impossible, becomes unnecessarily more difficult). Another phrase I employ to try to reach beyond the mechanics of active listening to express its deeper spirit is “big ears, big heart.” That is, when dealing with conflict – with your child, your spouse, your co-worker, your employee, or your boss – begin by imagining yourself (yes, actually picture yourself) with enormous, perked up, velvety ears and a big, red, soft, beating heart.
In my experience, it’s just very hard to stay mad at someone who is truly trying to understand you, feelings and facts. Indeed, I truly believe that if most people were able to do this consistently, I would soon be out of a job.
So, the next time you are in a spat, try it. First, notice that you’ve dropped out to that place of mental arguing. Then, consciously decide to instead rise back up to hang in there with the other. Listen to them deeply and actively – head and heart.
And see where it goes.