Links to the entire series
Sometimes, I just want someone to listen.
The purpose of listening in conflict resolution is not for the listener to get ‘the facts’ but to support the speaker in understanding their own thoughts and feelings about the destructive conflict they are involved in.
If you are focused on getting the facts it suggests you are wanting to take some level of control of the situation in order to resolve it for the speaker.
You can’t resolve another person’s destructive conflict, you can only help them to resolve it themselves.
The following poem introduces us to the features of this important skill:
When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice
You have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way
You are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you feel you have to do something to solve my problems
You have failed me, strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I ask is that you listen
Not talk or do – just hear me.
Advice is cheap: 50p will get you both Claire Rayner and Russell Grant in the same newspaper.
And I can DO for myself. I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational, then I stop trying to convince you,
And can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
So please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk,
Wait a minute for your turn, and I’ll listen to you.
The more you let go of giving advice, suggestions, opinions, interpretations, the more you can focus on what the speaker is saying.
You may feel they are telling you about their interpersonal conflict because they want you to solve it for them and so you may feel a pressure to come up with ‘the answers’ for them. They may even think that’s why they are doing it as well.
While you could give advice about the situation and it may seem like good advice to them, you are ultimately not solving the problem for them as they will have to be the ones to carry out that advice. If it works for them, what will they do next time?
They will probably come to you for more advice. In this way, disempowerment and dependence are born.
And this will probably continue until the advice you give doesn’t work. Then you are at risk of being considered ‘responsible’ for the failure of your advice.
Throughout all of this, however, the speaker has been blinded to the realisation that the destructive conflict is theirs and that they have the capacity to resolve it themselves. And when they see that, they can also take responsibility for resolving it and not pass it on to you or someone else.
So why not cut out the intervening confusion and truly, genuinely, listen from the start and not give advice or suggestions or opinions or interpretations, all of which imply you are trying to take some ownership of a destructive conflict that is not yours. And possibly it implies you don’t believe the person can resolve their destructive conflict by themselves.
Now isn’t that just a little arrogant?
Don’t worry, it’s ok to make mistakes. They are a great opportunity for learning.
Try observing your impulse when you hear someone telling you about a difficult situation they find themselves in. Are you truly listening or are you searching for answers in your head to provide for them?
When people are involved in a destructive conflict they often talk about it to others, sometimes looking for allies, sometimes looking for advice. Usually, both of these, if provided, escalate the problem or confuse it:
Alliances or factions inevitably mean a larger number of people become involved, over whom the person with the destructive conflict has no power. They may then act in ways that escalate the problem, ‘in support’ of the person in conflict.
Advice adds to the person’s burden because they feel they have to either do something they’ve been advised to do, but may not understand why, or they have to reject it if they don’t feel comfortable with it. More importantly, it distracts them from finding the answer within themselves.
In effective conflict resolution the person is just listened to, to enable them to understand what they are feeling, and what they are wanting, and what they think about their situation, so that they can develop a sense of control, or choice, or power over their responses.
Listening is the first of the 3 skills used to support effective conflict resolution and they can be seen to occur in a continuous cycle where listening is followed by a summary (without opinions or re-interpretations) and questioning (without advice or suggestions), followed by more listening.
This supports creative thinking by the speaker and enables them to ‘stand back from’ their situation and review it so that they can decide whether a different response might improve their situation, or they may start to perceive or experience their situation in a less distressing way.
Continuing the cycle as far as the speaker wishes to go enables a focused opportunity for them to create these new responses or viewpoints, supporting their recognition of their own power to resolve their situation. Did I say ‘their’ enough there? Ownership of the situation and of its resolution is entirely…. theirs.
The despair that is associated with many destructive conflicts is as much to do with the onslaught of advice and intervention from others who are ‘only trying to help’ as with the original problem. The advice and involvement of others ‘taking sides’ escalates and complicates the situation.
Simply listening, without giving advice or taking sides or agreeing or disagreeing is an empowering activity, a sanctuary for the speaker to express themselves unimpeded by advice and opinions and suggestions and interpretations of how they are feeling or “What you really mean is…”.
From the Indisputably Blog First, I suggested that trials should be considered as part of (A)DR. Now, my school publishes a symposium on judicial education in our Journal of Dispute...By John Lande