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Understanding other perspectives through active listening

Most conflicts are a result of misunderstandings. We misjudge other people’s motives, discount their expertise and fill in the blanks of what we think we hear—and they’re probably doing to same to us.

How can we move through misunderstandings and come up with solution both of us can get behind?

It’s one of the most important leadership skills: Listening to understand—also known as active listening.

In this post, we’ll explore active listening and show you how it can help you move from conflict to collaboration.

First off, get in the right mindset.

When you’re in conflict, the first step is to assume the other party has positive intent. Yes, there are jerks in the world—people who are determined to ruin other people’s day just out of sheer meanness. But they are anomalies. Very few people wake up and say to themselves, “Wow, I can’t wait to tick off everyone today!” So, it’s important to assume positive intent.

Two, make eye contact

When you keep eye contact, you’re telling the person that you are focused on them—really focused. Eye contact invites cooperation and increased interaction from others.

Aim to maintain eye contact for 50% of the time while speaking and 70% of the time while listening.

Three, don’t interrupt

It’s so easy to fall into this trap: Instead of really listening to the speaker, you’re planning what you’re going to say in response. We’re so in love with our own opinion! We want to make sure we make our point. Restrain this impulse.

Interrupting tells the person speaking that you don't care what they have to say. You think that your voice is more important.

Four, ask clarifying questions

Get curious. Clarifying questions are questions that the listener asks the speaker in an attempt to eliminate or prevent any misunderstanding, confusion or ambiguity. Most clarifying questions have the form of when, why, where or how types of questions and encourage the speaker to openly expand their thoughts and ideas.

For example, ask the speaker to define terms he/she uses. “When you say X, what do you mean? Could you give me an example of that?”

Avoid closed yes-or-no questions that tend to shut down the conversation. Ask open-ended questions to understand their viewpoint. For example:

  • “Tell me more”

  • “Can you help me understand more about your needs in this project?”

  • “Say more about that” or “Help me understand”

Five, encourage full expression

Ask “What else?” at least three times. Often you don’t get to the “real issue” until the third answer. They may not actually know themselves, and your encouragement will help them understand their own perspective better.

Six, paraphrase back what the person has said

Once you feel the speaker has fully expressed themselves, use other words to reflect what the speaker has said. Paraphrasing shows not only that you are listening, but that you are attempting to understand what the speaker is saying. It is often the case that people hear what they expect to hear due to assumptions, stereotyping or prejudices.

You might start this off by saying "In other words, what you are saying is..." Then ask for confirmation. If your summary is not what they mean, go back to asking open-ended questions and asking for examples until you can both understand the position/situation clearly.

Seven, watch body language—both yours and the speaker’s

Research shows that communication—the transfer of information—is based only in small part of the words we use. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more receptive to what the speaker is saying. Face the speaker. Move closer to the speaker. Lean in. Incline your head toward the speaker.

Meanwhile, stay attentive to their non-verbal cues. Facial expressions, tone of voice, and other behaviors can sometimes tell you more than words alone. The mouth, eyebrows, and forehead are especially revealing of emotional states.

Wrapping Up

In the long run, we all want to be understood, not merely interpreted. By implementing these active listening behaviors, you’re more likely to understand the other person’s point of view. When you understand where the other person is coming from, you’re in a better position to come up with a solution that everyone can get behind.

Want more strategies for managing conflict? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.


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