Resolving Conflict with Active Listening

In many tense encounters, neither party is actually listening to the other

By Jeff Shannon  |   Aug 27, 2015
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[Editor’s Note: It’s no secret that many in this profession see their marriages collapse. The reasons for this are many and complicated, but communication is often at the core of conflict. In this article, police officer and licensed family therapist Jeff Shannon takes a look at how active listening can support healthy relationships by improving communications. In a future installment he’ll examine how active listening can also improve your patrol tactics, investigative skills, and professional relationships.]

Active listening can be a very effective way to resolve conflict with your partner. If done correctly, active listening not only resolves the problem at hand, but it brings both partners closer on an emotional level. Both feel more connected after active listening. The reason it’s so effective is that it breaks up what I have come to refer to as the Toxic Dance.

When I’m first getting to know a couple as a therapist, I watch and wait for the first conflict to enter the room. When it does, it’s almost always the Toxic Dance. To illustrate active listening I’ll use a fictitious couple we’ll call Stan and Julie. For the record, active listening works just as well with same sex couples.

The Toxic Dance is the one we normally do when we have conflict with our partner. It’s familiar, instinctive and destructive all at the same time. It involves both people talking rather than listening, in the misguided belief that “If I just state (and possibly restate) my position on this issue, we can get through the argument.” Both people honestly believe that, if they could just get their partner to understand MY experience on this, the conflict would be over.

“Come on, honey, let’s just be done with this! All you need to do is GET what I’m saying.”

The underlying and unconscious message is: You’re experience of this issue and your feelings about it don’t matter.

In the Toxic Dance, our partner’s perspective on the issue causing the conflict is just noise. Stan waits for the noise to stop, and as soon as it does—even if it’s just for a fraction of a second—he leaps in again with his talking. Normally, the only way to get through the Toxic Dance is for one of the partners to roll over. Some common indicators that one of the partners has rolled over and the Toxic Dance is done, is when we hear, Julie say, with great sarcasm, something along the lines of: “OK, great.”

On the surface, because Stan got in the most talking and forced Julie to roll over, he is the “winner.” But, of course, Stan has won nothing accept more resentment from Julie. In this way, the Toxic Dance pours sand into an otherwise finely tuned machine of life partnerships.

In active listening, the conflict isn’t over until both partners have had the opportunity to openly express themselves regarding the problem at hand, and be heard in doing it. It’s based on the buddy system as opposed to the “every-man-for-himself” model of the Toxic Dance. For most of us, active listening is unfamiliar, awkward and painful. It’s quite common for neither partner to want to participate in active listening, especially in the heat of battle. However, active listening is an outstanding long-term investment. Not only is it good for marriages, but in any case where a relationship has soured.

The basic idea behind active listening is that it’s listening, not talking, that resolves conflict. As simple as it sounds, deep listening can be quite challenging. In the Toxic Dance our task is to force our perspective on someone else. In active listening, our job is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” as Stephen Covey puts it in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,

Active listening is a 5-step process, which can be summarized as follows: 1) agree to remove the conflict; 2) One party speaks, the other listens; 3) the listening party explains what they heard said; 4) The speaking party (optional) corrects any misunderstandings conveyed; 5) rinse and repeat, as they say, with the roles reversed.

How this might work for “Stan” and “Julie”:

1. Both partners agree to use the instrument of active listening to surgically remove the  conflict.

At some point during an argument one partner needs to realize the Toxic Dance has started, set his/her proverbial weapons down, and offer the olive branch of active listening. This should be made explicit by saying something to the effect of, “Do you wanna try active listening?” The tool cannot be used unless we have a partner in peace, so we need our partner to agree, also explicitly, to give active listening a try.

2. Stan speaks, Julie listens.

The best way to listen is to imagine that you’re writing Stan’s biography, without adding your own beliefs, perspective on the situation and so forth. The listener must take a position of curiosity toward his/her partner’s experience. This can be quite difficult. (See the video, right!)

This is where the ground rules for active listening come into play, the first of which is speak for yourself, not your partner. When speaking, we don’t define our partner’s reality, we define our own reality. We do this by using “I” (i.e., “I felt like …”) rather than “you” statements (i.e., “You went crazy when I …”).

Another ground rule is that we avoid globalizing words such as “never” and “always.” One of the beauties of active listening is that it gives each partner an opportunity to better understand how specific words or actions affect our loved one. There is no way to address what I “always” or “never” do.

Also, use active listening for one problem at a time. Both partners need to stay focused on the topic at hand. Otherwise, one person may derail the process by using a “tit for tat” approach. This is not a time to unpack every issue you’ve had with your partner over the duration of your relationship.

What’s Stan’s internal experience going to be while he listens to Julie? Stan’s going to get real hot under the color. He’s going to try not to jump in with a rebuttal of some kind. It’s imperative for Stan to keep all his toxic, destructive thoughts and feelings toward Julie to himself. Think what ever you want—just keep your mouth closed.

If Stan is in a quiet rage when listening to Julie, how do you think Julie feels? She feels GREAT. She’ll feel the burden being lifted right off her shoulders, immediately putting her in a better mood.

3. Stan tells Julie what he heard her say.

He starts with, “What I heard you say is …” Stan does not add any commentary or rebuttal in here. He just simply repeats what Julie said from her perspective. As Stan does this, Julie will likely be glowing with joy.

4. OPTIONAL: Setting the record straight.

Julie may want to clarify a point. For example, “I didn’t say you never help around the house. I said today, I felt like I was doing everything by myself.” Then Stan would acknowledge he understands by again telling Julie what he heard her say.

Ok, so now we have a situation in which one person in the couple (Julie) is feeling great, and the other (Stan) is pretty tense, and possibly angry.

5. Repeat with Stan talking and Julie listening. This is the exact same process you just did, just switching places.

Conclusion

If you are really able to flip this conflict on its head, you can end up with a deeply connected moment with your partner. Most people would rather be understood than be right. In fact, right and wrong becomes meaningless in this process. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is that each person has been heard and acknowledged. After both people feel that acknowledgement and that they’ve been heard, a quiet space is created between the couple. It is in that quiet space that the couple will watch the solution to the problem at hand emerge.

This is when gifts are exchanged.

Julie: “I know you’ve really been working a lot of hours, and when you get home you just want to relax. I totally get that. I’ll finish up the kitchen, you go relax.”

Stan: “You’re totally right. I’ve been feeling sorry for myself lately because of how much overtime I’m getting, but that’s no excuse. I know you need help, honey. Let’s do the kitchen together tonight.”

You must agree: That’s a way better outcome than more escalating and exhausting conflict. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

 

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon is a police officer, law enforcement instructor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. He teaches Wellness and Crisis De-Escalation as part of the Alameda County, Calif. Crisis Intervention Training program. Jeff is recognized by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) as a subject matter expert in the area of stress management for law enforcement. He can be reached at [email protected]
Jeff Shannon

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