by Bill Southworth

For the past several months this column has been focusing on conflict – why it happens, the forms it takes, one’s role in creating it, and preparing for when it might happen. I briefly mentioned listening to understand as an effective way to prevent and to intercede with conflict. This month I explore the importance of listening to understand.

Listening to understand is a powerful tool for building and maintaining relationships and trust, for healing damaged relationships, and for increasing the possibility of having your opinions heard and understood by others, This tool applies in relationships between individuals and among nations.

How does listening to understand work? Building good relationships with others requires that you understand their ideas and opinions, especially those that you disagree with. Staying open to their contrary opinions begins to establish a relationship of trust which is critical to any kind of harmonious relationship. Good listening is a place to meet and be fully present with another person. It can be used at home, at work, in the neighborhood, at public meetings, or any time two or more people are talking with one another. The acknowledged speaker will realize that even if the listener disagrees s/he is not about to revert to fight-or-flight simply because s/he holds an opposing opinion. Continuing to stay present and listening to understand is not an easy task for any one, but is essential to building and maintaining good relationships -- relationships that will last a lifetime.

Listening and being understood are critical parts of healing damaged relationships. In one instance I facilitated a conference of 13 federal agencies, which had been battling one another for a few decades over how to deal with a particular natural resource. We worked out an agreement to concentrate on understanding the position of each of the 13 agencies on the disputed issue. I also proposed that they agree to work with one another on this issue beyond this one meeting. They did, the desired outcomes were accomplished and the agencies continued to collaborate with one another. (Collaboration sometimes means working with the “enemy”.) That’s what happened in this instance, in the service of a common interest. Similarly, in our Wisdom of Conflict workshops the participants enter with damaged work relationships. They learn about their inappropriate responses when their “hot buttons” are pushed and then learn appropriate responses, which, with practice, become the foundation for new habits. One of the most dramatic instances of healing that followed careful listening occurred in the Truth and Reconciliation program in South Africa when victims of atrocities had a chance to publicly speak and be heard, often by the person(s) who had carried out the atrocities.

When there is good listening there is often a mutual benefit for speaker and listener. The speaker who is understood benefits by being acknowledged and recognized for her/his thoughts, as well as being recognized as a worthy person, even when the listener disagrees with the speaker. The listener benefits when her/his acknowledgement encourages the speaker to be more open to the contrary position of the listener when it’s the latter’s turn to speak. And both listeners often learn new ideas and views on the issue.

The issue of listening reminds me of a time when I was teaching in an urban school. Most of the students in one of my classes were just waiting until they were old enough to drop out. I, on the other hand, wanted them to learn and gave them homework each day. One student was not doing her homework so I met with her after school. I mentioned the homework and she said she had no time. I asked her to tell me more. She explained that she had only half an hour to spend with her friends before going home to take care of her younger siblings because their mother worked from 3 PM to 3 AM as a cleaning woman. She’d help them with their homework, prepare their meals, get them to bed, get their clothes ready for the next day and then rise early the next day to get them and herself off to school. When she finished her story she asked what could she possibly do? I replied, “Whatever you can.” From that day forward, including when she was suspended for two weeks for some infraction, she handed in her homework. That act of listening and recognizing her story was a powerful learning tool for both of us.