Many of my posts in the past few months have been focused on my new book, Turn Enemies Into Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace. The four phase model starts with managing yourself, making sure your mindset and emotions are centered and purposeful, before engaging others. An integral part of managing yourself is the practice of active, aligned listening, sometimes when it's not easy. And I realized recently just how long I've been making this point.
I had the occasion to re-read my first book, Unlikely Teachers: Finding the Hidden Gifts in Daily Conflict last month. One of the stories--"Listening When It's Not Easy"--gave me pause. Because it's about listening when it's not easy to do so, I found it as relevant to our current cultural landscape as it was when I wrote it in 2006, maybe more so. The story is about a conflict that arose as I was leading a workshop back in the day, and how I practiced metaphorical aikido by managing myself in order to manage what was coming at me.
I'm reprinting the story here along with its accompanying "Practice." I hope you'll tell me if I'm right. Is it still relevant? Maybe more so?
Listening When It's Not Easy
Once while teaching a course called “Conflict in the Classroom” on how to manage problem students and situations, a potential conflict arose for me in the first fifteen minutes of the session.
A participant raised his hand and—with some passion— asked how it was that I could use aikido, a Japanese martial art with a philosophical foundation, as a metaphor in teaching about conflict and communication. He said that if he, as a practicing Christian, got up to speak about Christian values as a basis for behavior, he would probably be shouted off the stage. He had come to class to learn specific strategies to manage conflict and handle difficult students, not to learn about aikido or its philosophy. He said that if the class was going to focus on aikido, he would leave.
There was silence. The class, as one, held its breath.
Fortunately, I did not.
I honestly replied that I did not know the answer to his question about why it seemed culturally okay for me to use aikido as a metaphor when he could not use Christianity in the same way, and I agreed with him that it didn’t seem fair. I said I appreciated his viewpoint and his openness, and assured him that he had come to the right place. Aikido was a reference point we would use periodically, and at the end of the day he would leave with the mental and verbal strategies he was seeking to manage difficult situations, both in and out of the classroom.
Blending and Redirecting
This experience is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. The first is my own reaction that morning. On another day, I might have held my breath as well, perceived this man’s question as a personal attack and resisted it with apt reasoning on why what I was doing was not the same as his example. Aikido, for instance, is not a religion or belief system. It is a martial art with physical techniques that can be applied in the metaphysical realm. I’m sure I could have made some good points, but in the end I would have lost the participant even if he remained in the class.
Happily, that morning I instinctively blended with his verbal push and aligned with his position. By that I mean that I listened. I also positioned my body so that instead of facing him head-on, I stood at an angle to him. It served the purpose of letting me see the room from his point of view--analogous to what I wanted to accomplish in other ways.
From his perspective, I understood that I was engaging in activity that the culture would not accept from him, and I easily identified with his energy. I might feel the same if I were in his shoes. In that moment, I watched myself make real the aikido metaphor I was teaching. I joined and harnessed his energy. As a result, the encounter had a positive outcome--he stayed and became an active participant. I was grateful for the opportunity to practice what I teach. And, not incidentally, I benefited from a momentary view into a different world.
After the workshop I was moved to think about the deeper implications of this man’s question and the resistance that we generally offer to another’s strong beliefs about anything. It’s true that I was not presenting aikido as dogma, nor did I have expectations that my students would leave professing its values. Consequently, most of the people in the room that day were open to what I had to say.
Still, I had to ask, why do we resist when a fellow worker, friend, or family member speaks to us of God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or the benefits of living a life based on their teachings? Yes, they are often expressed more vehemently and sometimes with expectations attached. Nevertheless, what could be lost by listening? Why do we defend against the heartfelt beliefs of others, especially in a world that seems to be searching for principles to live by?
There are many reasons of course. Often the energy with which the beliefs are delivered is so strong we feel overwhelmed. Furthermore, if the beliefs are different from our own, we automatically assume we have a conflict. Worried that listening will express tacit agreement, we push back by making counterarguments, changing the subject, or avoiding it altogether.
Adversarial listening takes many forms. While preparing arguments on our own behalf, we tune out the speaker, focusing our mental energy on devising the rebuttal and proving him wrong. If, on the other hand, we decide to avoid the conflict by changing the subject, walking away, or mentally shutting down, we’re still making the same arguments to ourselves, just not expressing them. Predictably, the resistance only makes our partner try harder.
Listening as an Ally
Listening to understand the other’s view more clearly is usually not on our list of options. Yet by actively listening to others, we give them and ourselves a great gift. We invite them to let their fountain of energy flow freely. We reinforce their sense of self. We help them find equilibrium and direction. And, surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt or compromise us in any way.
Active, connected listening does not mean I will automatically comply with the speaker’s request, accept his beliefs, endorse his reasoning, or agree with his viewpoint. It means only that I listen without an agenda and without mentally preparing a rebuttal. This is not an easy task, perhaps in part because I fear learning something that will invite me to change my view. In the most threatening conflicts, my beliefs are challenged and my identity is at risk. If I agree even a little, my sense of being right is threatened. As a result, I don’t (can’t) really listen. This is unfortunate, because when I’m able to listen well, I gain so much.
For example, when I can be wholly present with a speaker, agreement is no longer what’s relevant. Instead, I entertain what it would be like to stand in his shoes, see the world from his vantage point, and experience his hopes and fears. Increasingly, I find this a most enjoyable and fascinating endeavor. I gain insight and empathy, increase flexibility and focus, and experience an intimate connection with another person. I hook up with his energy--outrage, joy, excitement, sadness, intense belief--and I identify with his humanness. I realize I’ve been there, maybe not at this moment, but I’ve had similar feelings in my life.
The Art of Listening
You could say that learning to be a good listener is a selfish act. The better listener you are, the more fun you’ll have, the more you will find that people want to be around you, and the more you’ll learn. It’s not always easy, but it is simple: we all benefit from listening more and talking less. The world is growing too complex, too full, and too small not to stop, look, and listen. We can learn a great deal from our “opponents.” And when we truly listen as an ally, we discover gifts for ourselves as well.
- To listen well is an acquired skill. Recall a conversation you had earlier this week in which you wanted to prove your point. How did it go? How might the conversation have gone differently if you had talked less and listened more?
- Think of a conversation coming up this week where you can explore the art of listening. Practice one or more of the following:
- Show with body language (head nodding, eye contact) that you are fully present.
- Quietly vocalize your attention, “uh-huh,” “mm-hmm,” etc.
- Summarize the speaker’s words occasionally.
- Guess at the speaker’s unstated feelings and hopes. What does he really want?
I'd love to hear about your experiment with the art of listening. Would you send me an email or comment below to let me know how it goes?