Try Listening

The greatest threat to human relationships in the 21st century is our inability to listen to one another. Today we possess a thousand different ways to talk to one another (phone, email, text, video chat, social media, blogging), but those methods of communication are useless when we lack the ability to listen. When we respond before making the effort and taking the time to listen, we end up talking at each other rather than to one another only leading to further division and miscommunication.
 
The Bible teaches us that it is important to listen, especially when involved in an emotional conflict. James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (1:19). Proverbs 17:27 says, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”
 
Today, if you are embroiled in a conflict, having trouble with your spouse, at odds with a coworker, disputing with a neighbor, having a difference with a family member, or fighting with your children, then can I give you one small piece of advice? Try listening. You just might discover a path to reconciliation. If you can reconcile, then your relationship will be stronger on the other side of the conflict because you will have learned how to better communicate with one another.
 
The next time you have an opportunity to have a conversation with the person with whom you are fighting, try a different approach. Open the conversation with something like, “Listen, I know we are not seeing eye to eye, and I am unhappy with the way we have handled this so far. Since I know you are unhappy as well, I’d like us to try a different approach. I want to listen to you. Tell me how you are feeling about this issue, and I will not speak until I understand your side to your satisfaction.” Most people will not turn down a chance to be heard.
 
After your partner in conflict shares how she feels, then try to reflect what they have told you back to them. Say, “so what I hear you saying is that you feel (insert emotion) because (insert tangible cause of that emotion).” Here is what it would look like in a marriage conflict, “So what I hear you saying is that you feel angry when I repeatedly hit the snooze button because my alarm wakes you up and keeps you from getting rest.” Here is what it looks like in a workplace conflict, “What I hear you saying is that you are stressed, because I wait until the last minute to get my report done.”
 
Often, you will find that you have misinterpreted your partner’s words. For example, the spouse might reply, “No. That is not what I meant. I get angry when you hit the snooze and sleep late because it means I have to get the kids ready for school without your help.” The coworker might reply, “No. Your procrastination doesn’t merely ‘stress me out’ it infuriates me because it keeps me from meeting my own work deadlines.”
 
Keep restating what you hear them saying until they say, “Yes. You nailed it. That is how I feel and why I feel that way.” It is only then that you are ready to state your side. Use the same succinct formula. “I feel ______ (insert emotion) because ________ (insert tangible cause of that emotion).” Then, ask your conflict partner to reflect what they hear you saying back to you. Repeat these steps over and over until an amicable resolution surfaces.
 
Apply James 1:19-20 by refusing to speak until you have first heard. Apply Proverbs 17:27 by using the necessary minimum number of words. Avoid blame, keep a cool spirit, and refrain from raising your voice. If your partner cannot keep cool, then make an appointment to circle back and try the conflict resolution process again later.
 
Embrace the discomfort of vulnerability. Do not be too quick to apologize or to prematurely accept an apology. Saying or accepting an apology does not resolve a conflict if an apology is offered or accepted before all the emotions and causes for the conflict are on the table. You will end up having the same fight over and over.
 

Everyone should read Robert Bolton’s book, People Skills, for more tools on how to have tough conversations and resolve many different kinds of conflicts.