Listening is really important. You probably know that. But in many of the situations where it matters most, listening is not what comes naturally for us. In situations of stress and conflict, virtually no one becomes a better listener.
I’ve been teaching classes in communication skills for years, and am currently preparing a version of my workshop for The Ivey Academy called “Face to Face: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Misha Glouberman.” I know, intellectually, as much as any person can, that listening is critical for problem solving. It’s an invaluable step for getting good solutions, building collaborative relationships, and repairing damaged ones.
And yet, when I get into a stressful situation with another person, where we disagree about something, my first automatic thought process goes something like this:
“Ah! I see the problem. This person and I see things differently. Clearly, I need to fix this. Luckily, I have a really great and smart understanding of this issue. I know that my point of view is reasonable, well-founded, and even correct. So all I have to do is explain to this person why my way of seeing things is right, and that will fix the problem.”
This would be a great strategy, if the other person were thinking “Gee, I’m probably wrong. I hope Misha will tell me why.” Sadly, that is pretty much never the case. Like me, the other person is an opinionated, stressed-out human. Like me, they are thinking about their point of view, and how reasonable it is, and how well-founded, and how there’s a very simple solution to this whole misunderstanding, which is just to explain their view to me.
So, I start explaining my way of seeing things. Explaining my point of view is a lot of work! I put a lot of effort into doing it really well, and clearly, and persuasively. All that hard work explaining doesn’t leave me much energy for listening. But that’s okay! My job is just to explain. After all, I’m right!
And the other person does the exact same thing. For all the same reasons as me.
The result is that a lot of words get said, but not a lot of communication or learning or problem-solving takes place. We both work very hard on talking, and not very hard at all on listening, and all those carefully-chosen words end up just passing each other by in the air.
Overcoming these inclinations isn’t easy. But if you’re able to do it, it can be tremendously powerful, and really help you get better outcomes, avoid needless conflict, and solve problems much more quickly and effectively.
A powerful exercise
Next time you’re in a complicated or stressful situation, try making it your first task to just listen. Do this for twenty minutes or five minutes or three minutes, or whatever you think you can do or the situation merits. Try saying this to the other person: “I want us to make progress on this issue. And I think, as a first step, I’d like to better understand how you see things.”
Then listen. Maybe ask a clarifying question or two. But try, for a few minutes, to resist the urge to explain your side. You can do that soon. You can do that after your three minutes or five minutes or twenty minutes. Don’t worry, your opinions will still be there!
When people in my class try this, they find a few things:
- It is not easy. Many people are surprised to learn how hard it is to listen, even for just a couple of minutes.
- But if people can do it, even imperfectly, they find it’s often really transformative. Once you listen to the other person, it can really change the conversation. It often de-escalates conflict. It often gets the other person more receptive to listening to you. It often helps people to get to solutions and resolutions that they thought were impossible.
Listening is powerful, but hard. It’s really something worth working on. You can learn to get better at it, and getting better at it will get you better outcomes in a really wide variety of situations.
One great venue for developing this tool is my course, Face to Face: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Misha Glouberman. There, you can improve your communication and negotiation skills alongside other business leaders, and build a systematic approach to clear communication, conflict resolution, and talking about tough issues.
Face to Face: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Misha Glouberman is currently offered as a private program.
Misha Glouberman teaches negotiation and communication skills; runs meetings, conferences, and facilitations for organizations; and hosts live events. He has taught his course How to Talk to People About Things to hundreds of people and dozens of organizations, imparting memorable and effective negotiation and conflict resolution skills.
He is the co-author of The Chairs Are Where The People Go, named by The New Yorker as one of the top non-fiction books of the year, and “a triumph of what might be called ‘conversational philosophy,’ and that the Los Angeles Review of Books says “should be required reading for Congress.”
Misha helps you and your team get better at communication, negotiation, and strategic thinking. His approach makes each learning experience interesting, useful, and fun.
About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment.
Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network.