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Communication Skills for the Workplace: Listening in the Midst of Conflict

Communication Skills for the Workplace: Listening in the Midst of Conflict

– Gayle Wiebe Oudeh 

Arguably, the most important communication skill in the workplace is the ability to listen. When employees don’t feel listened to, they feel devalued. When bosses don’t feel listened to, they feel disrespected. When clients don’t feel listened to, they feel ignored and unimportant. Thus, whether you are a front-line employee, manager or executive, honing your listening skills is critical to your success.

Being a good listener is relatively easy in certain situations. When you and the individual you are talking with have a good relationship, listening to what they are saying is not difficult. In fact, between friends, many of the “rules” of good communication are left by the wayside. Interrupting, making assumptions, talking over each other – these things happen frequently when friends are talking to each other in a relaxed environment. And rarely do these communication “mistakes” get in the way. Because of the positive relationship, the individuals involved assume the best of intentions in the communication process and any misunderstandings are quickly addressed and clarified.

It is also quite easy to be a good listener when you are interested in what the speaker is saying. If your boss is telling you about your raise in pay, if a colleague is explaining how to do something that you need to do, if a co-worker is telling you about policy changes that will impact you, it is relatively easy to actively listen to what they are saying.

Listening becomes more difficult when the relationship between the speaker and the listener is strained or when the listener is not particularly interested in what the speaker has to say. If there is a conflict between two colleagues, the listener may find it difficult to listen to what the other has to say because the interaction is coloured by frustration and irritation. The listener is focused on his/her feelings of annoyance or anger and so is unable to focus on what is actually being said. Unfortunately, in the midst of conflict is exactly when good listening skills are most important!

There are three skills that good listeners demonstrate. As mentioned above, these skills may not always be evident in easy-going conversations between friends and the absence of these skills does not have a negative impact on the conversation. However, in more difficult conversations, their absence can derail the conversation entirely.

Firstly, good listeners will demonstrate attending skills. These are the actions, body language, and behaviours that indicate to the speaker that you are prepared to listen. It may mean putting your phone down and looking the person in the eye, inviting the speaker to sit down, or simply telling the individual that you want to hear what they have to say. In whatever manner it is demonstrated, it tells the speaker to go ahead and that you will listen to them.

Good listeners also exhibit following skills. These are often the nods or “mm-hmm’s” that are dotted throughout a conversation. These are all indicators to the speaker that the listener is following what they are saying and that they should continue.

The most important listening skill in difficult conversations is clarification. This is the skill that is most frequently neglected when we are having easy, positive conversations. Since we don’t practice it all the time, many of us are not as good at it as we need to be when it comes to more difficult conversations. Lack of clarification in difficult conversations can often escalate the conflict and make communication even more difficult in the future. Clarifying skills are those behaviours that indicate to the speaker that you have actually heard what they have said – not just the words, but the meaning underneath the words.

Clarifying can be done in three different ways: paraphrasing, summarizing, and reframing. Let’s have a look at each of them.

Paraphrasing shows that you are trying to listen and understand what the speaker is attempting to communicate. When paraphrasing, the listener periodically repeats what the speaker has said. Now if the listener simply reiterates exactly what the speaker has said every sentence or two, this will only lead to annoyance on the part of the speaker. It is important that when paraphrasing, you use your own words and that you reflect back what the speaker said as well as the emotion behind it. An example of a paraphrase might be, “so I’m hearing that you’re not happy with the way the meeting went yesterday and that you noticed that Frank dominated the meeting over and over again and that Donna didn’t say anything…”

Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing in that it reflects back to the speaker what they have said. The difference is that summarizing is basically a review of the important issues or recaps the progress of the conversation thus far. When summarizing, briefly list the issues or highlight what’s been said. Summarizing is particularly useful when the speaker seems to be saying the same thing over and over again. This repetition of points happens frequently in conflict situations. It is because the speaker is not feeling heard. Thus, if the listener summarizes (“ So as I understand it, your concerns are how meetings are run, and how team members contribute to the discussion.”) the speaker knows that their points have been heard and the conversation can move on.

Reframing is an important clarification skill in conversations where the speaker is extremely negative and the negativity is stalling the conversation. Reframing means restating, in a positive manner, the speaker’s intent, interest, or concern, omitting charged words or accusations. It turns a negative statement into a constructive problem-solving statement. Where a paraphrase of a negative statement might be “so you don’t ever want to work with Frank again because he’s such a loud-mouthed know-it-all”, a reframe might be “so, I’m hearing you say that, in order for you to feel comfortable working with Frank, you need to know that he hears and respects your input.” Notice that, with a simple paraphrase, the speaker is more likely to respond in an ongoing negative manner. (“Yeah, I can’t stand that guy!”) A reframe, on the other hand, gives opportunity to begin a conversation about what it means to be heard and respected and how that might be demonstrated in the future. (“Yeah, I just want him to listen once in a while because I think I have something important to contribute.”)

Whether you are paraphrasing, summarizing, or reframing, the magic of clarifying skills is that it allows the speaker to confirm that you have heard what they were saying, or not. It gives the speaker the opportunity to say “yes, that is what I mean” or “no, that isn’t what I said.” And if you didn’t get it right, the speaker can then try again to get their message across. This opportunity for clear communication, where the speaker’s intended message is clearly received, allows for greater understanding between parties. And, while understanding doesn’t guarantee agreement in a conflict, there definitely cannot be agreement without understanding.

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