Active listening

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Active listening is the process of listening and clarifying information to ensure mutual understanding - and it's an essential tool in conflict resolution.

When you use active listening it helps you to get a clear understanding of the other person's issues, perspectives and emotions, which in turn helps you to develop better options for resolution. It also helps the other person to feel that they have been heard and understood, which builds rapport and can help you de-escalate emotionally charged situations.

Steps to active listening

There are many variations of the steps to active listening, however they all share the same traits:

  • Be mentally present - Focus...don't drift off.
  • Listen attentively - Pay close attention to what the speaker is saying and how they are saying it. You are trying to understand both facts and feelings.
  • Clarify what you have heard - Clarify the information and make sure you have heard and understood everything correctly.
Conflict Management Active listening
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Demonstrating empathy

Empathy means trying to see the conflict from the other person's perspective and showing them that you understand where they are coming from. Your role as the listener is to ensure that the other person hears that you acknowledge their feelings, as well as helping them to really hear what they are saying.

  • Read the non-verbal as well as the verbal communication to assess feelings.
  • Check back with them about their feelings as well as the content even though they may only be telling you about the content.
  • If you're not sure how they feel, ask them e.g. "How do you feel about that?", "How did that affect you?"
  • Reflect back to them what you hear them to be saying so they can hear it for themselves.
  • Reflect back to them what you hear them to be saying so they know you understand. If you get it wrong, ask an open question and try again e.g. "How do you see the situation?"
  • Allow some silences to grow in the conversation if appropriate. Thoughtful silence can be fertile ground.

De-escalating a situation

In situations of conflict, it is common for people to blame each other, particularly if emotions are running high. If someone is attacking you verbally, moving into active listening mode is usually the most effective approach you can take.

When you use active listening you show the other person that they are being heard and understood. Every time you correctly label an emotion that the other person is feeling, the intensity of their emotion dissipates. Once the emotional level of the conflict has been reduced, people tend to become more reasonable, and you can start to move towards a resolution.

  • Listen and refrain from defending yourself. Defending yourself while their emotional level is high will inflame the situation further.
  • Acknowledge and label their emotions as you perceive them. Make sure they know that you are hearing how angry or upset they are.
  • Acknowledge their side. This doesn't mean agree with them, just that you can see things from their perspective, e.g. "I can see why what I said would have made you angry".
  • Explore gently with them if there is more behind the emotion.
  • Keep on reflecting back as accurately as you can until they come down from the high emotion. If you are doing it right, they will explain everything in some detail, but as the interchange continues the heat should be going out of the conversation.
  • Once the conversation has calmed down, you might say how it is for you, without denying how it is for them.

Learn more

Next: Conflict Management - Managing your emotions