Conflict is very good at creating listening barriers. When they’re talking we’re only half listening while we wait to talk, formulate our comeback, struggle to keep calm, and fall into other habits that get in the way of good listening. If you’re in a position to help someone come back into good listening, try these four questions to prompt the return (you can use them with yourself, too).
It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.
It’s really hard to listen well in the middle of conflict, even when we know the importance of good listening. Distractions, preoccupations, misunderstanding, the other person’s long-windedness, strong emotions, and “going inside our heads” to formulate our response — listening barriers like these interfere with good problem solving.
Good questions and good listening are the rockstar duo of effective conflict resolution and good problem solving. They’ll get you 80% of the way there in most situations.Tweet
They’re also the rockstar duo because we can use one to help us do the other better. When we listen well, the questions we ask get better because we’re hearing and understanding more deeply. And good questions trigger better engagement — and better listening.
It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens.
– CARL ROGERS
Here are some of my favorite questions to help someone back into good listening.
1. What’s holding your attention?
But this question deserves a place at the table well beyond the start of a conversation. It’s one of my very favorite questions and I find it invaluable in moments like these:
- When I want to understand why someone seems to have checked out of the conversation.
- When I want to understand why the temperature of a conversation has gotten hotter.
- When I think something important is on someone’s mind but they haven’t shared it yet.
- When I want to interrupt a tirade and understand what triggered it.
I prefer this question to, What’s going on for you right now? because it feels less therapeutic and yields information without encouraging rumination.
2. What will working this out mean for you?
Conflict has this way of blocking our long view. There we are, our eyes on our destination, and conflict comes up and grabs us by the collar. We don’t even notice that it’s blocking our way because now our attention is on our collar.
This question helps us get out of collar-grab moments that aren’t really taking us anywhere. It helps us redirect attention away from the minor nuisance or distraction and refocus us on what’s important. Our listening can improve again because we’re no longer distracted by the tussle over our collar.
A similar question with equal merit is, How is this situation affecting you?
3. What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?
A repetitive argument is a sure sign there’s little listening going on. One reason arguments get repetitive, stuck in a cycle of the same positions, arguments, and even words, is that people are actually solving different problems. We become like two train tracks running parallel but never meeting, though we may not be conscious of it.
This question brings the hamster wheel debate to a standstill, and makes those distinctly separate train tracks visible. It also re-engages our interest in listening because we want to know what problem the others think we’re solving.
When we’re helping others in a conflict in which we have no part, the better version of this question is, What is the problem you’re trying to solve here? This may sound like splitting hairs. When I’m mediating, I try not to entangle myself in their conflict; the job’s hard enough as it is and by being clear with my language, I’m clearer in my mind, too.
4. I know you can’t…but if you could…?
Sometimes we stop listening because no solution seems to work and the situation feels hopelessly deadlocked. Can’t can’t can’t and won’t won’t won’t reverberate in our heads and the sense of impotence can make us withdraw.
Here’s what the question sounds like in practice:
- I know you can’t agree to that idea, but if you could, what would make it possible?
- I know you can’t agree to a solution that increases your expenses right now, but if you could agree, how could that happen?
This is a strange question but its weird power is indisputable. First, because it’s so weird, people re-engage and start listening again. Second, it acknowledges you’ve heard them say no to something, even though you’re about to question that very no. Finally, it invites them to think beyond the no.
Even after two decades of using this question to inspire both deeper listening and deeper problem-solving, it seems on the surface that it can’t possibly work. And sometimes it isn’t helpful. No question is a guaranteed slam dunk. But often, after triggering an odd look, it prompts really useful fodder for discussion and problem solving. And it brings them back into listening.
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