Conflict has a way of magnifying our bad listening habits. I frequently see the following listening habits get in the way of constructive and collaborative problem-solving during conflict and thought I’d flag them for attention.
Good communication during conflict relies, to some extent, on our ability to use good communication habits in our everyday conversations. If we fall into bad listening habits in our everyday conversations, it’s going to be harder to be good listeners in times of tension and stress.
I’m as guilty of some of these bad listening habits as the next person and I strive to get better at them.
1. Listening with our answer running
When we listen with our answer running, we’ve stopped listening. It may look like we’re listening, but really, we’re inside our head, preparing what we’ll say the moment they pause. Of course, while we’re doing this, they’re still talking, so we miss some of what they’re saying.
It would be a shame to miss a gem that might have changed the conversation for the better or led to a different outcome.
2. Listening only from our own frame of reference
Stephen Covey described a listening continuum that runs from “ignoring” on the left, to “pretend listening,” then “selective listening,” then “attentive listening,” and finally to “empathic listening” on the right. He proposed that the first four are the types of listening we do most often. They all take place from our own frame of reference.
Of the five types of listening, Covey said that only empathic listening is an attempt to listen from the other person’s frame of reference. Only empathic listening comes from a desire and commitment to listen without agenda.
3. Stealing someone’s story
Enzo, canine narrator of the novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, describes stealing someone’s story this way:
I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another’s conversations constantly. It’s like having a passenger in your car who suddenly grabs the steering wheel and turns you down a side street.
Stealing someone’s story means to pull the conversation away from what they were talking about before they were done — maybe even before they really got started. Maybe they mention a frustrating lunch with a colleague. That reminds us of the stale croutons at the salad bar at lunch today, so we turn the conversation to croutons. This can be an exasperating experience for the original storyteller, who was in the midst of something else entirely.
In conflict, we may do this more than usual, because we really would like to change the direction they’re heading. They may then steal our story, and the conversation deteriorates into a series of stolen stories, none really heard or attended to by the other.
I once was introduced to the new owner of a large sporting goods chain while at a business gathering. He asked me a question about my work and as I briefly answered it, I could see he wasn’t listening. He was looking over my shoulder and moving his head slightly from side to side. I finally stopped mid-sentence and looked behind me to see who he was looking at. It was a mirror. He was multitasking with himself.
Multi-tasking is bad for good listening. Our attention is divided by the “switch costs” of multi-tasking and we can’t help but miss part of their message.
Chronic bad listening habits are built on multi-tasking: Checking email or reading texts while in conversation. Continuing to work through the pile of paperwork on our desk while a colleague drops in to voice a concern. Opening today’s mail while our teenager tells us about something that happened at school.
5. Listening to confirm we’re right
Years ago my husband and I visited the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. When I saw this quote from legendary coach John Wooden, I realized I wasn’t just visiting a mecca for hoops fans, I was visiting a tribute to some of the best coaching in the world:
Conflict often denies us the desire to learn. We may not listen to learn as much as we listen to confirm we’re right. That we’re right about their wrongness. Right about our interpretation. Right about their frailties and mistakes. We listen with the agenda to hear those hints and use them as weapons of defense and offense.
When we think we know what we need to know about them and the situation, maybe that’s the signal we should start listening more deeply.
Overcoming bad listening habits
All of these bad listening habits share a few characteristics that, in turn, create barriers to conflict resolution:
- They serve our own agenda more than they serve a joint agenda.
- They signal that we aren’t truly interested.
- They’re sloppy ways to listen at a time we need to up our listening game.
Of course, because they’re habits, we may have none of those intentions and just stumble into bad listening because we’re used to it. Maybe most days it doesn’t matter that we listen half-heartedly and not very attentively. When conflict is in the air, though, we need to be able to catch ourselves and listen differently.
Here are four effective ways to break bad listening habits:
1. Enlist help. If we don’t notice right away when we’ve tripped into a bad listening habit, it’s helpful to enlist a trusted colleague, family member, or friend to alert us. We want them to alert us not in a judgmental way, but in a “just giving you a heads up” way. They can do this with a subtle kick under the table, a gesture we agree on ahead of time, or simply by saying, “You asked me to alert you when you stumble into that habit.”
2. Practice in low-stakes moments. It is very hard to listen well under the stress of conflict. To get good at it under pressure, we first need to be good at it when the going is easy. When we practice in everyday conversations, we develop our “muscle memory” for good listening and can build from there.
3. Make a commitment to “get into their movie.” The typical advice about listening well is to “be curious.” That’s good advice but hard to pull off during conflict and tension. It’s helpful to use the “get into their movie” listening device to help us be curious. “Get into their movie” means to temporarily suspend our disbelief in order to hear and learn something we otherwise might miss. It’s an easy phrase to remember.
4. Commit to eye contact. The simple act of making eye contact while someone is talking forces us to stop multi-tasking and pay attention. And it helps them feel attended to. When we practice this for small stretches in everyday conversations, we establish the kind of connection that will serve us well in times of tension.