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:

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.

An open and neutral expression signals the willingness to listen.

Mirroring their posture shows acceptance.

Maintaining comfortable eye contact shows attentiveness.

Allowing silences to just be is golden.

Verbal techniques to prompt expression and encourage flow

Use minimal encouragers to keep the conversation flowing.

Ask open questions to prompt expression.

Ask closed questions to establish facts.

Verbal techniques to reflect and summarise insights

Reflect details to emphasise points and demonstrate attentiveness.

Reflect meaning to support and encourage insights.

Reflect feelings to show empathy.

Summarise to wrap up.



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.