Listening with the intention to understand is the most fundamental requirement for understanding others in difficult situations. But, maintaining this positive intention is challenging for a number of reasons.
Foremost, an intention is abstract which makes it very difficult for most of us to monitor. Secondly, our internal reactivity to what offends us or what we disagree with interferes with our positive intention to understand.
I believe we are sometimes able to get a better handle on our abstract intention to understand by focusing on some of the concrete mechanics of listening and understanding. Here are two very concrete actions that you can take when listening that will contribute to understanding others better.
1) Demonstrate that you are listening
2) Confirm that you have understood
1) Demonstrate that you are listening
In actual fact, listening well is not enough. You must demonstrate it in some manner so that the other person detects your listening. Sometimes appearing fully attentive is adequate, but frequently it is not. You are best advised to periodically reiterate what you are hearing. How often you actively respond depends on many factors including your comfort and personality.
At some point you need to summarize, which could begin as follows: “I would like to be sure I understand clearly…” or “I’m getting…” or “Let me see if I am hearing correctly…” Then you summarize the other person’s perspective. Since you will disagree with what is being said you can occasionally insert during your summary, “As you see it…” or “Your experience is…” to ensure you don’t communicate agreement with the other person.
You may find the other person corrects or modifies your summary. Fine. This is part of the process of refining understanding between you. After some time again, you can say, “Now let me see if I understand…” and summarize again. In this manner your intention to demonstrate understanding improves your listening and actual understanding.
2) Confirm your understanding
Your goal is to have the other person tell you that you understand. Sometimes the other person will say that you are a good listener or some such other compliment, but rarely will he say, “You understand how I see it.”
To fully confirm your understanding I think you have to ask, “How well do I understand?” The answer is likely to be that you are starting to get it, in which case you have more active listening to do.
When you ask, “How well do I understand?” and the other person replies that you understand well, then I think you can have some confidence that you have substantial understanding of their perspective. In conflict situations until you are told that you understand, I think you are better off assuming that your understanding is limited.
The significance of understanding
Substantial understanding is significant. There is a fundamental human need to be known and to be understood. It is part of developing a sense of dignity and belonging in the workplace, and of having connection with an associate. It’s also required to have a sense of being loved by a spouse.
Understanding is usually threatened by conflict. Mediators often play the role of demonstrating listening and confirming understanding for the parties until the parties begin to be able to do so for each other. You can helpfully take on this mediator role and seek to really understand someone with whom you have differences. I see it as a basic task required to move many situations to more acceptable relations, and even to settling disputes in which the parties will never see each other again.
Try it out. I think you will find that it changes what it means to listen and understand. Rather than focusing on the inner intention to understand others, you may more easily focus on demonstrating your listening and confirming your understanding.