I was once asked to meet with a “difficult” bank executive on behalf of a client. The rising frustration between the parties was holding up the project.

The meeting started off as described by my colleagues. Anger, frustration, defensiveness; expressed as strong words, aggressive gestures and closed body language. He was clearly getting his offences and defences in place.

But I had no history with this person. Nor did I feel the need to challenge or defend anything. I decided to focus on really trying to understanding what things were like from his side of the table:

  • What does the current situation mean to you?
  • How did the situation come about?
  • That sounds really frustrating and unnecessarily difficult for you.
  • What was it like for you when this other situation happened?
  • That must be so disappointing.
  • What did you have you deal with?
  • The way that was handle doesn’t make much sense at all does it?
  • What would make things easier for you?

Throughout this process of listening, reflecting, affirming and questioning, our interaction transformed dramatically from one set up for conflict to one of calm collaboration. He even thanked me at the end!

Active listening

Active listening is “active” because the listener talks too. Unlike normal conversations however, this talking is used to encourage further expression, and not to direct the focus back to us.

Active listening builds rapport. Good rapport makes working together much easier. With it, we are more likely to share information and express ourselves. It can also reduce the likelihood and severity of conflicts.

Active listening de-fuses strong emotions. Strong emotions can overwhelm us and interfere with our ability to thinking clearly. They can keep us stuck in unhelpful behaviours. Active listening creates a safe psychological space to identify and contain these strong emotions.

Active listening facilitates successful negotiations. Active listening is part of any successful negotiations. It is after all, impossible to strive for a win-win outcome if the parties are unable to listen to and understand each other.

Active listening demonstrates emotional maturity and respect. The ability to separate our needs and ego to focus on listening to another speaks volumes about our confidence and emotional maturity. It is probably also the most powerful level of respect you can show another person.

Active listening can be learned! And will improve with practice.

Non-verbal techniques

An open and relaxed posture signals non-threatening receptiveness.

  • Maintain a relaxed demeanour. We are very good at picking up on tension
  • Keep your body language open: don’t cross your arms across your chest.
  • Position yourself at the same level as them.
  • Don’t slouch back or lean away from them.
  • You can consciously model an open posture to encourage them to change theirs.

An open and neutral expression signals the willingness to listen.

  • You can’t fake the willingness to listen.
  • Go in with the clear intention to listen, understand and focus on them.
  • This is the best way to maintain an open and neutral expression.
  • Smiling or laughing at inappropriate moments can indicate boredom or distractedness. Stay neutraland reserved until you get a good sense of each other as well as where the conversation is going.
  • Let them take the lead; smile or laugh only when they do.

Mirroring their posture shows acceptance.

  • People in the same group tends to act and talk in similar ways.
  • Mirroring their posture and expression can subtly signal acceptance; as long as these are not closed/defensive postures.

Maintaining comfortable eye contact shows attentiveness.

  • Maintain natural and frequent eye contact to reassure them of our full attention.
  • If there are multiple people in the room we will need to share your eye contact with all of them.
  • It is a good idea to set up the meeting in a quiet location away from distractions.
  • Don’t hide behind a laptop screen!

Allowing silences to just be is golden.

  • Despite the temptation to do so, we don’t have to fill every moment of silence. Although we are not really conditioned to like silence, we can learn to just sit quietly until they are ready to continue.
  • Periods of silence are often the times we stop and ponder what we have said and heard. It is a sign of courtesy to let them think in silence.
  • They will continue when they are ready.

Verbal techniques to prompt expression and encourage flow

Use minimal encouragers to keep the conversation flowing.

  • Use little “mmms” and “aaahs” to reassure them you are listening. Many of us tend to do this naturally. We can learn to use these more consciously.
  • Nods, the occasional questioning look, can also encourage them to keep talking.

Ask open questions to prompt expression.

  • Open questions encourage them to open up and expand on the subject at hand.
  • Open questions are ones that don’t result in one-word “yes” or “no” answers.
  • Ask about feelings: “How do you feel about…?”
  • Ask about opinions: “What do you think about…?” This question is also useful to elicit feelings from men who may not be as comfortable being asked directly about their feelings.
  • Ask for information: “What is…?” or “How…?”
  • Ask about context: “What was that like…?”

Ask closed questions to establish facts.

  • Closed questions allow you to get a specific piece of information, or check a particular condition.
  • A typical closed question is one that elicits a “yes” or “no” answer: “Was it reported to management?”
  • To get a specific piece of information: “Which date did that happen on?”
  • Closed questions can come across as a directive or an attack: “So you thought that was a good idea did you?”
  • Use sparingly to avoid turning the meeting into an interrogation.

Verbal techniques to reflect and summarise insights

Reflect details to emphasise points and demonstrate attentiveness.

  • Reflecting or repeating certain details, often using their language, shows that we are listening.
  • Reflecting details can really help them feel heard.
  • Reflecting details give them the opportunity to correct something, and to check their own assumptions.
  • We can use this technique to draw attention to certain things we have heard: “Was confusing…” “Ah… cancelled…”

Reflect meaning to support and encourage insights.

  • The way we interpret a situation and give it meaning help us gain insights.
  • Reflecting the insights they have expressed can help them see that they have insights, and to reconsider insight they may have dismissed.
  • It shows that we have heard the details as well as their interpretations.
  • Reflecting our interpretation of a situation can help bring an alternate perspective to play: “I am guessing here – could it have been an unfortunate coincidence?” It is important to frame this tentatively. We are offering an interpretation for the purpose of greater understanding; not telling them what their situation is.
  • Offering insights shows them that we are contemplating what we are hearing.
  • Reflecting meaning is intended to help us understand what a situation could mean to them, and not a means for us to put our point across, or for us to be right.
  • They are free to accept, reject or ignore our interpretations.

Reflect feelings to show empathy.

  • Empathy is the ability to have a good sense of what it is like being in someone’s shoes. It is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling pity; which is usually unhelpful.
  • Reflecting feelings is similar to reflecting details. Use their language. Reflect back what they have said. “You felt let down…” “Overwhelming and frustrating…”
  • Reflecting feelings can help them identify and articulate them.This can help contain strong emotions.
  • Reflecting feelings help them feel understood and validated.

Summarise to wrap up.

  • Summarising is a useful way to wrap up a block of listening, or at the end of the meeting.
  • We summarise by re-telling what we have heard, mostly in our own words.
  • For those insights we think are important, we may repeat them using their words for emphasis.
  • Summarising demonstrates clearly that we have been focused on them during the meeting.
  • A good summary can distill clarity from a chaotic and complex situation. This clarity can then be used to enable actions.


  • We need to be clear about and stay focused on our intention to understand. It is too easy to turn a listening session into a talking/arguing one.
  • Set aside a time to listen and understand. Clearly communicate this as the intent of the meeting.
  • We don’t have to fix anything right there and then. Nor do we need to come up with plans and alternatives. It is ok to say “I’m here today to listen to what you have to say and understand your position. I will then go away and formulate a considered response.”
  • They should be doing most of the talking. Any talking that we do should be primarily used to further understanding and encourage them to open up.
  • Depending on the situation, taking notes may or may not be needed or appropriate. We can always ask the person we are meeting with if they are comfortable with it.
  • To listen and understand another viewpoint does not mean we have to agree with that viewpoint. Nor does it mean we are acquiescing to their wants and desires.
  • Learn to set up and maintain healthy professional detachment and boundaries. You are not the conflict, nor your job, nor the organisation you work for.


  • Don’t panic Focus on the big picture outcomes.
  • Don’t take things personally.
  • Don’t defend, explain or justify.
  • Don’t talk about ourselves. This time is for them. When they feel that we have truly heard and understood their position, they will generally become more receptive to our points subsequently.
  • Don’t tell them how they should think or feel. Their feelings are theirs and real to them. We may not think we would feel the same way, or that they “should” feel a certain way; but telling someone how they should feel is a sure way to kill rapport.
  • Don’t turn a listening session into a negotiation. Listening skills is an important part of negotiations. But the time set aside for listening is not about negotiation.
  • Don’t make this about winning or being right.
  • Don’t just focus on feelings. Although listening can break the taboo of discussing emotions in the workplace, ignoring the factual matters is not helpful in the workplace.
  • Don’t rescue or fix. When we listen to difficult matters, it can be tempting for us to assume responsibility to rescue the person in distress or fix the situation. This disempowers them completely. It can lead us to make inappropriate, irresponsible or unethical promises; promises that we may not be able to keep.

Transforming crises and conflict

We are trained to speak up, make ourselves heard, assert our positions, and state our needs. And yet even as we are busy talking, we yearn to be heard and understood. We can change this.

Active listening can transform crises and conflict into calm collaboration. It is the holy grail of relationship-building.

Image: Angry businessman via Shutterstock.