Written by internationally renowned mediator and conflict specialist, Jane Gunn
At some point all HR leaders are called upon to resolve conflict. A lack of effective listening between colleagues is one of the main causes of workplace conflicts, a problem that has been on the increase during the pandemic. Before we have even stepped into the room, we are likely to have our own agenda which disrupts our ability to truly listen and resolve issues. But what can be done about it to improve communication and resolve conflict, and why does it matter?
Poor listening and communication are at the root of many relationship breakdowns, conflicts and disputes and lead to talent loss, poor productivity, low morale, missing deadlines, failure to complete on projects, loss of sales and a breakdown in trust and relationships. In business truly listening to employees, colleagues and stakeholders means seriously entertaining their ideas, thoughts and feelings, whilst simultaneously putting your own ideas and instinctive responses on hold.
Why The Pandemic Made Listening Harder
Being asked to work from home and attend frequent online meetings has meant that we have less access to verbal and non-verbal cues, body language, lipreading and facial emotional reading. Turn-taking is difficult in these sorts of meetings. If listening and speaking are harder, then people have less opportunity to express themselves. In addition, we may be distracted by other things going on at home and our mood and mental health may have been suffering. A lost ability to socialise at work means that meetings are often now solely functional. Furthermore, whilst wearing them may be required, masks have increased communication and listening problems too.
Why Listening Matters
When we communicate, we are subconsciously conducting a test for trust and respect. The test is continuous, it happens from moment-to-moment and is based on what people see, hear or feel. What they want to know more than anything else is ‘Do I matter?’ and ‘Am I heard?’
We also pay most attention to the things that directly concern us or are relevant to our own situation, our own needs, interests, fears and concerns, which means we can often listen from our own point of view rather than the speakers. The message that a person or organisation intends to give is frequently not the message that the other receives. Even when we feel we are expressing ourselves with great clarity, if either or both sides don’t truly listen to what is being said or don’t share the same meaning in the message there will be failures in communication. Not feeling heard can affect work relationships which can result in deep resentment, frustration and conflict.
Tips of how to use deep listening to resolve conflict.
1) Understand that every conflict has two components: emotional and rational. When a person experiences high emotion in response to a situation or an exchange with another person, the rational, thinking part of the brain will not come into play until they have dealt with the emotional hijacking of the brain. It is physically impossible for someone to switch to logical thinking when their amygdala has created an emotional fight or flight response.
2) Acknowledge a person’s emotional state with an empathetic response. In instances where an emotional response is taking place, the first step to resolving the situation involves expressing empathy. You do this by saying something like ‘It sounds like you are feeling very frustrated’, or ‘I can see that you are upset by this’.
3) Be curious about what it is that is bothering them. If you are aware of and respectful of the other person’s needs, interests, fears and concerns then that is a great opening for good communication. Equally understand that the surface level of conflict is usually just that and there may be deeper issues involved; you may be missing subtle cues or underlying messages. Try not to interrupt or jump to conclusions.
4) Stand in the other person’s shoes. Even if only for a brief moment in time, try to see the world as the other person sees it, rather than how you see it. If you can do this then the person that you are communicating with will begin to have trust in you.
5) Show you are listening. Make eye contact, be present, don’t multi-task at the same time, turn your phone and the tv off, and pay attention to what the other person is saying rather thinking about your own response. Speaking to someone who gives the impression that they are not listening will only escalate the situation further.
6) Reflect back. Unless we take the important step of reflecting back to the speaker what we thought we heard and checking that our interpretation is correct, then we have no real way of knowing that we have understood accurately. Don’t tell them what they are feeling but summarise the important bits by using phrases like ‘I think you are saying’…’ and ‘If I heard you correctly…’
7) You don’t need to have all the answers. Sometimes people just want to offload or vent and they don’t want fixing. It is ok to not always know what to say. The important thing is to be present and there for them and to have created a safe space for them to tell you how they are feeling.
8) Tell them your reaction if relevant. Give the speaker some information about your response to their message. Don’t attack on what has been said but add some value to the conversation, describing your reaction rather than criticising the speaker.