Listening with Your Heart and Head

Listening is a core skill for resolving differences.

Posted Mar 07, 2019

The first step in dealing with a disagreement based on differing emotional realities is recognizing that there is, in fact, a difference based on differing realities—not a contest with a bad person. The strategy for resolving a conflict with a person who interprets events differently is entirely different than handling a conflict with a bad person who is out to do you in.

This leads to the principle discussed in my first post: Agree that each person has a right to her way of seeing and experiencing things (her emotional reality) while affirming and trusting your own. The second blog described a key skill in resolving all conflicts: Communicate your own reality without finding fault with other people’s. This post addresses yet another key skill for resolving principle: Listen—with both your head and heart—even though you may continue to disagree.

One of the observable laws of relationships is that resistance breeds resistance. If you argue with, contradict, or discount what your partner says, you will get the same resistance back in kind. Some of us think that if we just provide a few more facts, a few more arguments, we can make the other person see things our way. Instead we simply escalate the argument. Arguing with your partner’s feelings communicates that either you’re not willing to listen or you don’t value your partner’s emotions.

One cause of resistance is the belief that if we don’t fix how the person is feeling, they will continue to feel that way forever. Nothing is further from the truth. When feelings are resisted, they stick around. The person will dig in and defend their feelings more strongly. When feelings are accepted, however, they begin to change. Sometimes, when their feelings are met with acceptance, people change a lot in a short time.

The goal in effective listening is acceptance, not agreement. There’s a big difference between the two. Here’s an example:

Agreement: “You’re right, she should have consulted with you. I’d be upset too.”

Acceptance: “So you’re feeling hurt that Monica didn’t consult with you.”

Acceptance shows that you understand and accept that the other person feels the way they do. Agreement says that you approve of their feelings and would feel the same way.

Two Techniques for Communicating Acceptance

One of the most valuable skills you can learn to improve your relationships is a skill called Active Listening. Active Listening was first developed by Dr. Carl Rogers as a therapeutic tool, but once you’ve become a skilled Active Listener you’ll find it has value in virtually all your relationships. It is also a tremendously valuable meeting leadership skill.

With active listening, you are trying to understand the other person’s reality even when your own reality is different. You don’t necessarily want to agree with the other reality, which might be equivalent to giving up your own reality. But you do want the other person to know that you understand theirs.

Active Listening consists of summarizing what the other person is feeling or thinking in your own words, then checking that out with the other person. Conceptually it is easy. Practically it is hard work.

There are four basic guidelines for becoming an effective active listener:

1.  Summarize, don’t judge.

2.  Summarize both feelings and ideas.

3. Reflect the intensity of the speaker’s feelings.

4. Avoid lead-in phrases.

In Loving through Your Differences I describe Active Listening in much more detail. But Active Listening is a bit like learning a new golf or tennis swing. Knowing about the need for the skill is an important first step. But you have to practice it, and practice it, to become any good at it. If you really want to become an Active Listener, participate in a training course where you’ll get lots of role-play practice. For example, thousands of people have learned Active Listening through attending Parent Effectiveness Training. That’s where I first learned the skill.

The Five-Minute Rule

There will be times when active listening isn’t possible for you: you may have so many feelings that you simply can’t create space inside for the other person’s feelings. This is particularly true if their feelings are about you. It is the rare person who can use active listening when they are the target of another person’s anger or frustration.

Yet it remains true that resistance breeds resistance. If you give up on active listening and just fire back with your charges and countercharges, sharing feelings can quickly turn into a nasty fight. If you can’t do active listening, but you know that resistance is likely to make things worse, what is the solution?

Years ago a marriage counselor taught my wife and me a simple technique that may have saved our marriage. It’s called the Five-Minute Rule. Each person gets five minutes to say whatever they want, any way they want. The other person does not interrupt at all. Then they switch. The person who has been silent gets five minutes to say whatever they want, and the other person remains silent. If, at the end of both turns, people still have feelings they need to express, they do another round of five minutes each.

Both people agree that either one can invoke the Five-Minute Rule at any time (with some possible exceptions, such as not in front of the children or other people). Once the Five-Minute Rule has been invoked, both people stop whatever they are doing. The only discussion that is allowed is who is going to speak first. Sometimes it is obvious that one of you has a more urgent need to express feelings. But if it’s not obvious, flip a coin.

The reason the Five-Minute Rule works is that for five minutes nobody is telling you that you are bad, stupid, or crazy for feeling the way you do. In ordinary tit-for-tat arguments, you are being told you are wrong every twenty seconds or so. Five minutes is long enough that some of the heat of the argument dissipates. I find, for example, that after about four minutes I am repeating myself to the point where I’m beginning to bore even myself. I still feel the way I did, but a whole lot of the intensity has gone out of my feelings. I don’t have the feeling that I just have to get the other person to understand and respond.

My wife and I have used the Five-Minute Rule many times, and it is a relationship saver. After a round or two, one or the other of us is willing to make some conciliatory gesture: “Well, I guess I could pick up more often.” Sometimes the exchange ends with both of us simply saying, “I don’t have anything more I need to say.” That seems pretty anticlimactic, but it’s actually a pretty good place from which to begin repairing the relationship. The key thing is that you both feel that you’ve been heard