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The Absolute Essentials Toolkit for Healthy Conflict, Part I

(Originally published October 16, 2019)

I love to go to the beach. That should surprise almost none of you. Over the years I’ve developed some very specific things to make the perfect beach trip. One essential is LUNCH. One essential of that essential is COOKIES – really good, gourmet cookies.

Another is a decent beach chair. Still another is the means to de-sand myself when I’m done savoring the beach (towels, Purell, handiwipes).

With my essential beach kit in hand I’m ready for most any beach, most any time. (If you live in Connecticut or Oregon you may need to add a parka, a snow shovel and a portable heater to this ensemble.) I think of myself as “beach ready”.

It is much the same with skillful, safe, useful conflict. A small set of tools and a little practice can transform conflict from the scary, terrible, destructive mess that too many of us have experienced into an incredibly useful, healthy, and even creative process and experience.

So what makes someone “conflict ready”? Thankfully it’s not very complicated. Over the next few blog posts I’ll outline the healthy conflict toolkit. First up is what may be the most essential skill for making conflict work well, as well as being one of the most important communication tools we can possess.

I’m talking about listening, of course.

High-Power Listening Skills

Conflict is a very, very human experience. It is not weird, it isn’t abnormal and it’s unavoidable in any relationship of duration and meaning. So why do we make conflict such a big deal?

That’s a complex answer, but one big reason is that conflict can make us feel very vulnerable. That’s not a word we hear much in business and professional settings, but it’s a fundamental truth of interpersonal conflict. One of the reasons that conflict goes sideways for so many of us is that we don’t know how to manage the vulnerable state that conflict is, for any of us.

One of the best ways to short-circuit this tendency to shut down feeling vulnerable is to become first-class listeners. (Notice I didn’t say perfect or flawless. Just semi-skillful.) It helps both for us as individuals and for the other party or parties. Scads of research tells us that humans are a species that communicates, and in particular has a need to BE HEARD.

It’s amazing, really, to see and experience what happens when someone feels seriously listened to. Blood pressure drops, heart rate slows down, we literally begin to breathe better – and that’s just the physical stuff. To be listened to creates a willingness in turn TO listen.

Being listened to establishes a sense of connection and trust that can’t be duplicated other ways.

The opposite is also true. When we don’t feel heard, and that sense persists, we tend to get agitated. We may try repeatedly to be heard. We may give up and shut down, at least on that topic and with that person. We may start trying to be heard from other people – people that really are not the people that need to hear us.

Worse, that sense of not being heard can accumulate, and as it builds up small things become big things, at least from our perspective. This is nowhere more true than when people find themselves, in minor or major ways, at odds with each other.

What Makes for Great Listening

The funny thing about being a great listener is how easy it can be, with a little awareness and practice. It comes down to confirming you’ve heard someone, to their satisfaction/confirmation. That’s great listening. It’s often called reflective or active listening, but whatever name you give it, it’s not complicated.

It’s also, potentially, the most powerful tool in our toolkit when it comes to effectively managing conflict! Terrible verbal fights, shouting matches and door-slamming fests can be quickly downsized and calmed with some determined, thoughtful listening.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially when we’re just getting started. If conflict has erupted or is boiling just below the surface we’re also dealing with emotions, with communication challenges, with our own stuff. If we’re not careful or too reactive before our rational brains kick in we can say things we wish we hadn’t, escalating the problem further.

So what do we do? How do we break the tempting and sometimes habitual cycle of escalating conflict, and/or resisting the temptation to run from conflict, long enough to engage listening?

Ways to Get Really Good at Listening

1) Start with making sure the OTHER person feels heard. It sounds crazy, and more so when you are already angry/frustrated/ready to blow a gasket, but it’s a brilliant place to start. The mission, when conflict is flaring, is to get someone, anyone, in their body long enough to get back to their best thinking possible. Summarizing what someone is saying is LISTENING, and it can only help.

It will also help you to make sure you’re really listening to them. Anger/hurt/annoyance to tend to obscure our best listening, yes? We start hearing defensively, we start interpreting what we’re hearing in the worst light possible, etc. Reflecting can short-circuit all of that. It’s a habit anyone can develop…

2) Insist on being heard ONCE you’ve heard. Communication is only as good as what someone hears, and we have both the right and the responsibility to be heard. Just like it’s great to summarize/reflect what you hear, it’s useful, appropriate and good to ask someone else to do that for you.

We have an odd tendency in our modern civilization to assume we’ve been heard. It is even stranger given how much more noise there is on our personal universes. Noise can take many forms. It can be the roar of information coming at us from multiple channels – email, phone, text, live conversation. It can be the press of all we have to do, on our minds all the time. It can be our own fatigue, irritation, frustration or confusion as we move through our day.

And, lest we think that it’s patronizing or rude to ask another person what they heard, we can simply make it about us. “Hey, I’m running on empty right now – can you tell me what you heard me say? I want to make sure I’m coherent.” Or any variation of that request you like – as long as you ask.

3) Know when it’s useful to use reflective listening. Here’s a short list:

a) Anytime the information is new, dense or a great deal at once to either party.

b) Anytime you have the sense the conversation is going sideways. (You know, that vague look of puzzled “what the hell are they talking about?” expression you see on people’s faces…)

c) Anytime you have the sense that either/any of you is getting irritated, mad, angry, etc.

d) Anytime you just want to be SURE you’ve heard or been heard.

Listening – unbelievably useful in dealing with potential or actual conflict. Think of it as the first tool in your “conflict ready” toolkit.


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