I read a quote the other day from Winston Churchill, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Wise words indeed, but it also reminded me that although we may have the skills to stand up and speak, we may not have the skills to sit down and listen!
It’s not surprising if you cast your mind back to your school days. I’m sure you remember the hours and hours for several years you spent learning the skills of reading. And the same for writing as well, you had many, many lessons learning those skills. Your talking skills started to be learnt when you were still a toddler – and you continued to develop them in nursery and primary school. But what about listening skills? How many lessons did you have on listening skills? Any at all? One single hour learning the skills involved in listening? No, probably not! Many times you will have been told to listen. Or were expected to listen. Or it was assumed you would listen. But what about actual lessons on the skills of listening?
Probably the nearest you got was a teacher telling you to "shut up and listen" as you whispered to your friend in class. However, as you will discover if you have conflict management training, being told to listen is not the same as being told HOW to listen, though interestingly just “shutting up” isn’t the answer either! In truth a little talking, but the right kind of talking, actually helps with listening. This is because letting the other person know that you are listening and understanding them (or at least trying to understand) is a vital component of listening skills. It helps build rapport, avoid misunderstandings that may lead to future conflict and reduces feelings of frustration. (Isn’t it annoying when you’re telling someone something important and they don’t appear to be listening!)
It is of course important to sound like you are listening and trying to understand. Every little "hmmm”, "yea", "really?!", "uh-huh", makes a big difference in letting the person know that you are following them. As you will discover if you every embark on a conflict management training, it’s particularly worth concentrating on these when you are tired, hungry, stressed, or in any other state of mind that may affect your tone of voice.
An occasional recap about what the speaker has said, paraphrasing what you have heard, ensures that mutual understanding is achieved as well. (Mutual understanding is the “holy grail” of good communication – without mutual understanding what is the point of communicating?) Getting into the habit of paraphrasing also means you are far less likely to end with misunderstandings that may lead to future disagreements and conflict, though don’t do it by interrupting or finishing people’s sentences – a habit many of us have!
It’s most important, when managing conflict, to ensure that you don’t stop listening as soon as you hear something you don’t like. If you can keep focused on hearing the details of a conversation, even if you disagree with what the person is saying you will develop a much greater understanding of the situation.
So going back to Mr. Churchill’s wise words, I feel courage is indeed required to sit down and listen, though sometimes that still involves the courage to talk at the same time – just in the right way!