Use active listening skills to effectively deal with conflict

Active listening is a way to hear and respond to another person that will increase shared understanding.

If we improve our personal listening and communication skills, we will better understand other’s perspectives, emotions and needs. The ability to listen and hear what another person is saying is essential to working through conflict.

As defined in Wikipedia, active listening is “a communication technique used in counselling, training and conflict resolution, which requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.”

It is critical to pay attention to the other person when they are talking. Focus on the words as stated in order to really comprehend what is being said. Pay attention to the points being made, instead of mentally preparing your response. Use honest questions to learn additional facts and details about the situation. Listen for signs of emotions and feelings that may be involved.

In the Michigan State University Extension Soothing Conflict Smoothies program, additional active listening skills include summarizing and reframing. What do these terms really mean, and how can you practice these “active listening” skills? You do not have to be in conflict to practice these skills – use them with your next conversation, whether at work or at home. The skills are simple, yet very powerful when used correctly.

Restate: Repeat what you have just heard, using words very close to those just spoken. This shows that you are listening to what is being said.

Paraphrase: Use your own words to state what you think the other person meant. Begin with phrases like: “I hear you saying,” “so I think you are saying,” or “you believe that…” This helps the other person know you have heard them and do understand what they are trying to say.

Summarize: Paraphrase what you have heard, including any emotion that you feel in the other person’s message. Use phrases like: “it sounds like you feel,” or “I believe that you feel…” This can confirm the other’s feelings in the context of the discussion, and often helps them to move on and pursue constructive solutions to the conflict.

Reframe: A KEY opportunity to describe what you believe the other person really wants, which can lead to thinking about constructive solutions to problems. Use neutral language, or err on the side of more positive statements.

Consider reframing a complaint of “I'm sick and tired doing all the work on this project” to “I'm hearing that you would really like other people to share the work and be equal partners on this project.”

It can be positive for people to think about solutions to interpersonal conflicts instead of focusing on a “my opinion versus yours” type of situation. Have you ever thought, “Gee, I think I just said that,” when it felt like someone was arguing their point of view with you? 

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