Are you Listening to Respond? Or Listening to Understand ?

As a coach and facilitator, it is not uncommon that I get pulled into resolving conflicts. And before I agree to facilitate, I work out some “working agreements” or behaviors which will be adhered to, during the discussion. Among other things, I try to work something along the lines of “giving other person the space to talk and to listen to their perspective”.

Not long ago, Jack and Bob (names changed) requested that I facilitate a dialog between them (the issue is not important) as they failed to resolve it within themselves, and like a good facilitator, I worked out “listen to the other person” into the working agreements.

Jack was the first one who wanted to share his perspective. As soon as Jack started talking, Bob started interrupting, mixing his perspective into Jack’s story. Initially, it was a few “and …”, “also…,” , “you should also tell Ram about …”. Initially, they were shorter, I did not mind it, and Jack did not too, but when it started getting longer and louder, I visibly saw Jack getting irritated and I reminded both of them about working agreements, to give space to the other person to talk. I had to hold my ground as the discussion was getting headed that point of time.

Something strange happened when I sternly told Bob to give Jack the space and time Jack needed to share his perspective. Bob, not only started taking notes (with time stamps) on what Jack said, but also built a column for counter argument with his points. And when it was Bob’s turn, his arguments were like “At 10:01 AM Jack said …, but that is incorrect… “, “When Jack said this at 10:05 AM, he did not consider ….”. I felt like I was in a court, listening to a defense attorney.

During crafting the working agreements, when  I meant “listen”, it was “listen to understand the other person” (or at least that was my unsaid assumption that had worked quite well many times).  But Bob had a different understanding for “listening” – stay silent, let the other person talk, but build your defense and arguments. This is what I would call as  “listening to respond”.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we don’t just listen (or don’t listen) to others only during conflicts. We listen to others during meetings, in everyday conversations, we listen to our boss, our coworkers, our subordinates,  parents, to kids, to friends and our spouses. Lot of times, we are “listening to respond” than “listening to understand” (When your friend was telling you about his vacation, have you gathered your thoughts about your vacation, only to immediately tell him how great your vacation was?). Our brain has some inbuilt circuitry (mirror neurons) to think and feel what the other person might be thinking and feeling. Hence it is easy to know if someone is listening to understand or listening to respond. Sometimes, we ourselves are not consciously aware if we are just listening to respond or listening to understand. What can you do to be consciously be aware of our listening mode?

You have to observe yourself (or be mindful, and it takes some practice), observe your thoughts, your attitude and your body language when having a conversation, especially a headed one. Here are a few things that I have observed in myself when being in both the modes (and yes, I have been guilty of listening to respond)

Listening to respond: characterized by impatience, you are waiting for your turn. Your mind wanders to other thoughts. Your body language conveys apathy and indifference. Your breathing is probably heavy. You may also be restless (taping your fingers/toes, etc). Even when the other person wants some acknowledgement or clarification, you withdraw yourself, because you know that anything you say or do will be and can be used against you. You can say what has been said “verbatim” if someone asks you what was said.

Listening to understand: You have suspended your judgement. Sometimes, you feel a bit vulnerable because of that. You are curious. You catch yourself when your thoughts are wandering and bring your focus back to the conversation. You ask for clarification. You empathize. You are able to separate facts and interpretation of facts (feelings) and respect both without discounting either. You not only understand the words, but also try to understand the feelings behind those words. You listen to not just what is said, but also what is unsaid.

So, the next time you are going to be in a heated discussion, are you going to listening to respond ? Or are you listening to understand?

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