“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  — Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

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.

Active listening in the midst of conflict (in 5 steps)

(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.)

  • Step one: Take a few deep breaths (for real). (Deep breathing calms the flight or fight response)
  • Step two: Calmly ask the other person to explain their position (again). And because some people become even more frustrated when having to repeat themselves, it can helpful to preface by saying something like “I know you’ve covered some of this before, but it would be helpful to me if you could explain one more time…” There are a few important things happening here: You are signaling to the other person that you’re not just digging in; that you’re still in problem-solving mode. And if you’re still in problem-solving mode, they’re invited to be in that frame of mind as well. Remember that problem-solving is one of those higher-level, rational cognitive processes that the lizard brain shunts. So you’re effectively signaling them that your lizard brain is not calling the shots. But you are also giving some control over to the other person in allowing them to explain why they think they are right. And their lizard brain, recognizing the control being given, will stop feeling threatened and stop pushing their fight or flight responses.
  • Step three: While they are talking, stay fully present in the moment. Remember “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time” (M. Scott Peck). Stay engaged by asking yourself these two questions: 1. What are the primary points the other person is making? 2. What are the points on which we agree? (eg. we both agree that we are behind schedule)
  • Step four: After the other person has finished speaking, you will want to repeat back to them the shared points of agreement (“We both agree that the program is behind schedule”) followed by a synopsis of their position. (“If I understand you correctly, you feel that the best way to make up time is to…”).
  • Step five: Acknowledge the validity of the points they are making, those you truly think are valid, and then (and only then) explain your position (“I understand why you feel that [A] is the right course of action. Here are my concerns about that approach…And so this is why I feel that [B] is the right approach. What are your thoughts about my concerns?”

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.

Edie Raphael

About Edie Raphael

Edith Raphael Brotman, PhD, is a Rewire Consultant for Rewire, Inc., a company she joined in order to help individuals and corporations achieve authentic and sustainable success. You can read more about Edith's approach to authentic growth here.

  • Steve

    Edie, I am sitting in the San Francisco airport and I just finished reading your article on active listening. Brilliant. We are honored to have you as part of the team. The world so needs more of this lesson and more of you and your thinking. Thank you. I am going to practice your 5 Steps. Very helpful!!!