Movie and television show arguments aren’t very real, even (or especially) when they depict terrible behavior. In most scenes, there is a clear-cut winner and loser and someone is always delivering the devastating line that seals the deal (like the courtroom fight with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, for example).
Compare that with the last time you observed two real people getting into a heated argument. Likely there wasn’t a winner — just two people losing, as they seem to talk past each other, never conveying that they really heard or understood the other’s point of view. And rarely does one person perform a one-two verbal punch which renders him or her the ultimate champion.
But there is another way to maneuver through conflict, an approach so subtly successful that we’re barely aware of how it’s happening even if we’re the one in the argument. It’s called “active listening” and it allows people to resolve conflicts in a manner that enables both sides to come out feeling good.
While you may have heard about active listening before, today I’m putting a Rewire spin on it that will help you to understand why active listening is so successful and how to use it to your advantage.
Let’s start with the foundational Rewire teaching on the lizard brain. The lizard has four drives: familiarity, habituation, control and being right. Can you guess which two drives of the four are typically present in every conflict? Yep, being right and the need to control. Conflict, almost by definition, is about power and control, whether the subject matter is geopolitics or leaving the toilet seat down (or up, depending on your household. I’m not here to judge.). And in any conflict, both sides believe they are right even when they hold diametrically opposing views.
Whenever there is conflict then, the lizard brain falls into a repetitive loop (consciously or unconsciously) of two thoughts: “I need control” and “I am right.” And with each repetition, the lizard brain digs its claws more deeply into control and being right. As long as the lizard brain is engaged in the loop, there is no chance for real resolution of the conflict, regardless of who actually is right or should have any sort of control in a given conflict.
A good leader, though, knows how to break the loop and quiet the lizard in order to create reconciliation and compromise. The method: active listening.
Active listening is first and foremost a listening to understand (not to respond or retort). When someone feels as though they are truly being heard, their lizard brain begins to settle down. Once the primitive lizard brain is settled, the higher levels of cognitive functioning are made accessible. It’s here in the prefrontal cortex where reason prevails. In essence, active listening makes rational discussion and evaluation possible.
There are five steps to active listening when you find yourself in conflict with another.
(For all of these, let’s use the example of being late on delivering a project and having a conflict with your colleague over the source of the delay and how to proceed.)
Note that, in the steps and example we’re giving, we haven’t arrived at particular conclusion and no one has “won” or “lost.” We’re not prescribing a particular outcome to the conflict (and that paradigm of “winners and losers” is sometimes unhelpful anyway for approaching conflict). But by conveying that you have heard and understood what the other is saying, you disarm the lizard brain and open up the possibility of rational, higher-level thinking and solutions. Sometimes, when the other person realizes they have been heard, you can actually see them physically relax. The tension melts from their body.
The next time you find yourself in a conflict with a colleague or partner, give active listening a try and let us know how it goes.
If you have any questions about how to apply active listening to a situation you are currently in at work or at home, reach out in the comments below or send me a message.