Listening, Part I

Listening to Understand
One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening
to what another
 has to say.
Bryant H. McGill

Effective listening, I’ve been told, is essential to all healthy relationships.

If we fail to listen to our children, how can we be sensitive to their unique needs? If we fail to listen to our spouse or partner, we convey that they are not really so important in our lives.

We hear relationship and communication experts tell us that when we are in conversation, most of us are engaging our brains to devise our next statement or argument, rather than being engaged in listening to what the other is actually saying. This becomes especially true in times of conflict or when a difficult subject is being addressed. It becomes a game of “Ok, I’ll give you a turn to talk, but wait for what I’m going to say next. You are going to be so impressed!” We listen just enough to prepare an effective comeback.

In her book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, Donna Hicks, Ph.D. says,

“Believe that what others think matters. Give them the chance to explain and express their points of view. Actively listen in order to understand them.”

This is her introduction to a chapter titled Understanding, which goes on to describe an intervention in a large organization where men held most of the power and the lack of equity for women was hurting them, and at the same time, hurting the company. She was able to teach the male participants how to engage with women in conversation in healthy ways. To simplify the discovery of that group: when an individual says something that you don’t fully understand, it is easy to quickly go to: that doesn’t make sense, so it must be wrong. The typical response is to then disagree or shut down the other.  The simple strategy that the group learned: ask “Please say more about your experience.” And “Tell me more” ….This is the pathway to making others feel understood.

Hicks worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2005 to facilitate the reconciliation of two men, one who, as a former member of the Irish Republican Army nearly killed the other 30 years earlier.  A lot of gut wrenching work, emotion, and deep intention went into the outcome of real reconciliation, but Hicks points out that one of the key elements was: “They listened without interrupting or challenging each other’s story; they listened to seek understanding…”

As the world becomes more complex and challenging, divisions run deep, and our pace constantly increases, we are wise to seek understanding on many issues and matters. This is equally true in our work and in our organizations.

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