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5 of the best ways to reduce conflict by improving your listening

Workplace conflict often arises as a result of communication failures that stem from poor listening by one or more parties involved in a conversation.

As you can't control whether the other party chooses to listen or not, if you want to reduce the chances of conflict, then it falls to you to intentionally listen better.

Take the advice of Sheila Heen, Harvard law school professor of conflict and negotiation when she says:

When you are having difficulty communicating, that is when you need to lean in and listen - Sheila Heen

Here are 5 ways to do so:

Tip #1 - Listen to understand vs. to respond

Many of us have unconsciously conditioned ourselves to debate vs. seek dialogue.

The problem is that debating is essentially a competitive conversational activity where people take turns supporting their position or argument. This can inadvertently lead to each party simply waiting (or not waiting!) for the other party to finish speaking so they can say what they want to say. This can easily turn into an endless ping-pong game of back-and-forth monologues.

When you choose to pursue dialogue, the climate of the conversation shifts from competition to collaboration where the objective becomes to seek a resolution or mutual understanding.

An important thing to keep in mind is that during a conversation, you have no control over how the other person chooses to approach the interaction as such they may choose to debate. This is why it's so important for you to turn on your active listening skills and listen intently to find common ground from where to build the conversation and guide it to a productive resolution.

Tip #2 - Ask questions to fill in your "blind spots"

The most powerful tool that you have for effective and impactful listening is your questions.

Good questions convey interest, help you to focus your thoughts, and ultimately help you get more information about the other person's position and thinking which then helps you fill in your information blind spots, help you to make better decisions, and ultimately give a better response.

Two important things to remember when asking questions are to focus on open-ended questions which require the speaker to answer with more than a yes and no answer and to avoid questions that can seem like an interrogation through the use of probing questions, complicated questions, and accusatory questions.

Tip #3 - Paraphrase what they say

Paraphrasing is the act of expressing the meaning of what the other party said as you understood it using your own words. This is helpful as it ensures greater clarity and understanding.

The sooner in a conversation that you start incorporating this technique, the sooner you will be able to course correct if there is a misunderstanding.

An example where this can be useful is to avoid "code clashes". This is where different departments within the same organization use the exact same terms but have attached different meanings and associations to those terms that are different and foreign to the other department. Paraphrasing can reduce the chances of conversations occurring where the same words are used, but the meanings are different.

Tip #4 - Use non-verbals to convey engagement

In any face-to-face communication, only about 7% of the message the receiver receives is from the actual words the sender uses the rest comes from non-verbals.

To better understand this, it helps to think of communication as a multidimensional fluid feedback loop where an exchange of information takes place and where the behavior of each party is affected and affects the behavior of the other.

In other words, while the person you are listening to is speaking to you, they are simultaneously using their eyes and ears to collect information as to how their message is getting across to you. This is happening in part consciously and in part unconsciously.

Given this, you can show them that you are listening through the intentional use of open body language, head nods, vocal sounds, and facial expressions. This non-verbal messaging will help communicate that you are engaged, and foster a more positive and productive dialogue.

Tip #5 - Take notes to free up your attention

The reality is that your memory isn't very good, and chances are during a tough conversation the other party will bring up a host of issues that you want to touch on, but it's impossible to both remember all those points and actively listen at the same time.

This is where note-taking comes in.

It will not only free your mind up to intently listen but also help clarify your thought and serve as a reference tool to refer to when you respond and ask questions.

A further benefit is that it also non-verbally sends a signal to the other person that you are engaged in the conversation. This type of unspoken, non-verbal signal is a hidden form of communication that is often not given much thought but has an enormous impact on a conversation.

What are you waiting for?`

Being a great listener is different from simply paying attention. It is a skill that you intentionally develop over time through desire, discipline, and deliberate practice.

By developing this skill, you will dramatically reduce your chances for miscommunication, conflict, and misunderstandings at work... and at home.

If you want to learn more, visit my website at


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