Agreeing or Disagreeing ≠ Listening

When Roger James and I teach listening skills, we ask people to look at a list of “non-listening behaviors.” The list includes thirteen actions including the usual culprits of interrupting, advising or persuading, and pseudo-questions (“Don’t you think that…?”)

When we ask people if there are any surprises on the list they invariably ask why “agreeing or disagreeing” is on the list of non-listening behaviors. Here’s why. When you listen you are trying to understand what the person speaking is trying to communicate. Agreeing or disagreeing is when you are trying to say what you want to communicate. Listening is about the speaker; agreeing or disagreeing is about you.

Listening behaviors are:

  • Being quiet;
  • Encouraging the speaker verbally and non-verbally (“Tell me more”, nodding, making eye contact);
  • Paraphrasing what the person said to make sure you understand him or her accurately (“I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. You are saying that…Do I have that right?”)
  • Reflecting feelings (“Sounds like you really care about this issue. Do you?”)
  • Asking open-ended questions (“What about this issue is important to you?”)
  • Summarizing (“You’ve made three points: A…; B…; and C… Have I missed anything?”)

All of these behaviors are designed to do two important things. First, they help make sure that people understand one another. Without accurately understanding what people are saying, meetings get caught in unnecessary conflict and endless discussions that rarely reach satisfactory conclusions. Second, these behaviors help people feel heard and connected to others (i.e., safe). This enables them to contribute more constructively to the interaction because they are not preoccupied with defending themselves or withdrawing.

It is hard to access these behaviors, or skills, when others put forth ideas or opinions that set your hair on fire. When we get emotionally triggered or hijacked, we just want to jump in and disagree, make our case, show them how they are wrong. This is understandable but not helpful. Reacting in this way tends to threaten people’s safety and they get triggered in turn. Then, we are all off to the races escalating disagreements and emotional hijackings.

Here are two ways to prevent ourselves from getting triggered and one way to intervene when we are.

  • Practice mindfulness. You are less likely to get triggered when you do because the amygdala or alarm bell in the brain is less reactive.
  • Practice listening skills in calm circumstances. If you cannot access them in calm conversational water, you will certainly not be able to access them in white water.
  • When someone says something that starts to trigger you (your heart beats faster, you can feel energy and emotion rising and flooding your brain), feel your feet on the floor, your seat in the chair, your breath in your body and then paraphrase what the person said. This will give you a few seconds to calm down and them a chance to clarify what they wanted to say. Often people say what they don’t exactly mean.      

Certainly, it is okay and expected that we will agree or disagree with one another. Make sure you accurately understand what people are saying so you can (1) accurately agree or disagree with them; and (2) increase the likelihood that, even if you disagree with others, they feel heard and safe.    

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