The Role of Active Listening in Conflict Resolution:
An Interpersonal Communication Perspective
The purpose of active listening in conflict resolution is to gain and demonstrate understanding of the other, which will serve as a basis for reaching joint decisions and ultimately resolving a conflict. In order to succeed in this, active listening has to address common problems in oral interpersonal communication. This essay examines the ways in which the techniques of clarification, paraphrasing, summarizing, reflection and digging deal with communication pitfalls. It also draws our attention to the underlying need for awareness of our listening shortcomings.
Even though active listening belongs as a concept to the field of interpersonal oral communication, it has turned into a prominent subject of studies only with the advent of conflict resolution. Conflict resolution has emerged as an area of general interest within the past thirty years, mainly as a consequence of the advancements in transport and technologies and the resulting opportunities for global political and economic interactions. Its rapid development has been fuelled by the growing awareness of the limitations of traditional negotiation (based on positional bargaining) and the search for more productive negotiating methods that will bring mutually satisfactory and long-lasting outcomes. Nowadays conflict resolution is applied across a wide range of situations, from ethnic conflicts on an international scale, such as the tension between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats in the wake of the 1995 war, to local disagreements, such as a clash between the management and the workers in a factory, to interpersonal conflicts, e.g. between roommates in a residence. The recognition of its effectiveness and versatility has drawn considerable attention to the techniques that constitute it. This essay examines active listening both as a technique of conflict resolution and in the light of the underlying interpersonal communication issues.
Active listening has been widely recognized as the most important tool of conflict mediation and negotiation.[i] The key role of active listening is justified by its purpose: to generate a profound understanding of the other’s concerns and motives, which will provide the basis for exploring mutually acceptable solutions and eventually resolving the conflict. In order to achieve such understanding, active listening has to address the common problems in oral communication; here we shall examine the ways in which the techniques of clarification, paraphrasing, summarizing, reflection and digging seek to overcome communication obstacles. In addition to gaining understanding, active listening serves to demonstrate that we understand the other and thus builds mutual trust, which can be as important as the understanding itself for reaching a satisfactory outcome. Finally, the effectiveness of listening depends on our awareness of the listening shortcomings we have; and with the increase of awareness we can overcome the inner limitations that shape our perception of the world.
The goals of active listening
Active listening can be defined briefly as listening with one’s full attention and an open mind (Elgin 14), which aims to bring an understanding of the other on a much deeper level than in casual everyday communication. In order to go beyond the conflicting positions and search for common points, we need to grasp the concerns of a party as completely as possible; and in order to achieve such a complete understanding, we must be aware of the characteristics of oral communication and avoid its pitfalls. The five techniques presented in the next sections address key issues in oral communication, such as bypassing or rapid fading. We can use them separately or in reinforcement of one another to obtain an accurate and detailed idea of a side’s concerns.
The techniques of active listening have another crucial function: they show that we have listened and are willing to listen. In conflict, communication most often fails because the sides are too concerned with their own argument to pay enough attention to the other (Fisher et al 33) or, inversely, do not perceive the other to pay attention to their statements. In contrast, a display of our attention and earnest intention to understand brings satisfaction to the other and in turn increases his willingness to listen (Fisher et al 34,181). The demonstration of empathy also satisfies what R. Kraybill defines as a basic human need: the need to feel recognized and accepted by others (87). As a consequence, it builds trust and encourages the participants to share their concerns more openly. Thus, active listening can promote both major aspects of communication: listening and speaking.
Clarification consists of questions that aim to clear ambiguities and bring further understanding of the other side’s motives and concerns. Misinterpreted or insufficient information presents the greatest obstacle to understanding, hence the role of clarification in conflict resolution is crucial.
R. Weaver and J. Farrel define four types of questions used in active listening (138). Openers, such as “What do you see as the main problem in this situation?”, can be used to initiate the discussion; they ask for general information. The purpose of follow-ups (“Would you explain in more detail? What were the results?”) is to gain a more complete picture of the situation and possibly reveal other dimensions of a problem or grounds for potential solutions. Clarifiers directly address ambiguities in a message and seek to make its meaning explicit. When asked about school policies on sexual conduct, the headmaster of my previous boarding school used to reply that “sex is not on the curriculum.” This statement was subject to completely contrasting interpretations; perhaps the only common element in them was its amusing character. However, when an actual incident occurred and several students were temporarily suspended for breaking the regulations, there was a wave of violent protests about the lack of any specific regulations and hence the arbitrary character of the punishment. If anyone had insisted on a clarification of our headmaster’s position, the whole conflict may have been avoided. Clarifiers can also translate an abstract, vague concept into concrete terms (“When you say ‘urgent’, do you have a particular deadline in mind?”, “In what sense do you feel treated unjustly?”). The function of probes is to generate more information (“Anything else?”) or delve into a different direction (“What possible outcomes of this conflict do you see?”).
A unifying characteristic of clarifying questions is that they should be open-ended: our intention in asking them is to find out more about the other, not to criticize, judge or advise (Weaver & Farrel 137); thus, “Don’t you think your actions were inappropriate?” is not an open-ended question because it contains a disguised evaluation. L. Lantieri and J. Patti identify another potential abuse of questions (70): the importance of time efficiency in Western culture may lead us to expect instant replies from the others, without giving them the opportunity to reflect on the question. Such time constraints place the other under pressure and create a sense of confrontation that is more likely to escalate the conflict than resolve it. David Whitehorse (quoted ibid.) contrasts the “Euro-American trial-and-error method, where the answer is often provided [by] ‘raw data’ without understanding the larger context of the question and perhaps the question itself” to the native American Lakota pattern “to think and feel one’s way through the question and its broader sociocultural implications”, withholding an answer until a substantial degree of understanding has been achieved. Conflict mediators should be aware of the negative impact of time constraints (real or perceived) and, whenever possible, seek to encourage reflection by allowing for pauses after questions.
From the viewpoint of interpersonal communication, a major merit of clarification is its ability to resolve misunderstandings arising from bypassing. Bypassing, as defined by D. Gouran et al (102), occurs when two people either use the same term to refer to different things or refer to the same thing by different words. A recent example of the first case was an argument among my friends about whether a certain Chris is a graduate or an undergraduate. After ten minutes of heated discussion, it turned out they had in mind different students named Chris. The process is further complicated by the richness of connotative meanings (meanings attached to words through our personal experience, beliefs or values, as opposed to the denotative meanings in a dictionary) that each individual brings into a conversation. In the slang of my closest friends, the adjective “insane” has become synonymous to “marvelous”; imagine the confusion when I have occasionally used this sense of “insane” in conversations with other people. One of the tasks of clarification is to avoid such misunderstandings and establish common definitions of problematic words. For instance, when we speak about “guidelines”, do we use the word as a euphemism for rules, or do we simply refer to suggested (but not obligatory) conduct? As long as we do not assume that our connotations are shared and understood by others, clarification will help us discover the actual similarities and differences in meaning and can be an effective tool for the building of understanding.
Paraphrasing is restating what the other has said in our own words. R. Kraybill identifies several main functions of paraphrasing in conflict mediation (89): it communicates understanding; stimulates more reflective responses; provides a buffer between statements and assists the parties in expressing their views; emphasizes the content of a message and reduces its emotional charge.
In order to convey real understanding, paraphrasing must not be a verbatim repetition of a statement but should rephrase this statement in a way that reflects how we interpret it. Repetition relies on memorization rather than comprehension and therefore does little to convince the other side in our active involvement in the communication process. Furthermore, it is an obtrusive technique and may soon become irritating. L. Lantieri relates the example of an overeager initiate in active listening whose excessive use of repetition after her first training session led her husband to exasperation: he thought she needed to repeat things because she was not listening to him (69).
In contrast, using our own words to express the other’s points not only demonstrates an earnest effort to understand him or her but also helps clarify ambiguities and misinterpretations. We often assume too readily that we have grasped the content of a message, but it is only in paraphrasing that we can test our real understanding. (I recall at least one situation in which a friend asked me to restate what she had just said – and what I thought I understood perfectly; my restatement failed miserably and made me question my entire perception of the conversation.) In this sense, paraphrasing provides instant feedback and addresses the same problems as clarification, such as bypassing.
A good paraphrase can also move the discussion to a deeper level in that it brings an idea into focus and stimulates the participants to elaborate on it (Kraybill 89). If a side has difficulty in expressing its views, the paraphrase can present them in a clearer and more coherent form or simply offer a starting point for their explanation. At the same time, paraphrasing introduces a pause between consecutive statements, which lets the parties reflect on each statement and think over their responses. By slowing down the discussion, it also reduces the level of tension and confrontation.
A final role of paraphrasing is to emphasize the content of a statement and at the same time dampen its emotional impact, predisposing the other side to consider the points in the statement rather than react instinctively to its tone. Thus, a pronouncement such as “I could have helped this bigot if he wasn’t so goddamn hell-bent on making all the decisions” could be paraphrased as “So you are unhappy about the relationship you have had, but you think working together may be possible under different circumstances”, which circumvents the strong reaction that the offensive language would inevitably cause and emphasizes the less obvious common point (working together). It is important that the paraphrase does not ignore the emotions entirely (since this may alienate the previous speaker, as we shall see in the section about reflection); it should merely state them in a form that does not limit the other party’s perception of the message. Abusive language and verbal attacks (called negative triggers by R. Weaver and J. Farrel (138)) affect our willingness (and indeed ability) to listen; our attention is instead engulfed by the emotional responses they elicit, anger and resentment being two common examples. The role of paraphrasing for avoiding such disruptions in communication is self-evidently crucial.
Summarizing reinforces and extends the effects of paraphrasing. By reviewing the main points in a side’s argument, we once again show that we have listened attentively and understand the argument (Kraybill 90). At the same time, the review refreshes the memory of the participants and helps the discussion stay focused. As Kraybill suggests, it can also highlight the common concerns that the parties have voiced and consequently direct the discussion toward a resolution of the conflict based on these common concerns (91).
The “refreshing” aspect of summarizing deserves special consideration since it addresses a fundamental problem in oral communication: rapid fading. When we first hear a piece of information, it enters our short-term memory and remains there for a brief period (usually about fifteen seconds); however, unless it is reinforced by subsequent information, it cannot enter long-term memory (which corresponds to our common definition of “memory” and is used whenever we are recalling something) and will simply be discarded.[ii] The nature of this process (known as rapid fading) determines the need for what Walter Ong calls redundancy in spoken communication: the frequent reiteration and elaboration of the points already made. In active listening practice, first paraphrasing and later summarizing fulfill this requirement for repetition and reinforcement of messages. A summary reminds the parties about all relevant points in a discussion and keeps the discussion from straying in random directions.
Notetaking and flipcharting are two indispensable aids to summarizing. Notetaking allows information to be stored permanently and thus resolves the problem of rapid fading for the mediator. However, there are two potential pitfalls in it: the mediator should faithfully record every point that has been made, avoiding the temptation to edit or write down only what seems relevant to him (Weaver & Farrel 143); at the same time, too detailed notetaking may interfere with the sense of human contact between the mediator and the parties: as R. Kraybill points out, a mediator who seems too involved with his writing pad does not convey much personal interest in the speakers and may discourage them from sharing their concerns (49). A balanced approach to notetaking is therefore crucial to effective mediation. In the case of negotiation, notetaking helps the negotiator focus her attention on the content of the arguments and reduces their emotional impact.
Flipcharting has several additional advantages. By writing points on a board where everyone can see them, the mediator demonstrates that each side has been heard and each concern recognized. If some misinterpretation occurs, the respective party can point it out and clarify it immediately. The written words themselves convey a sense of permanence that is absent in oral exchanges; as communication scholars such as W. Ong have noted, they are regarded to have more weight and validity than spoken language in literate cultures like ours. Furthermore, their constant presence allows the participants to refer to previously voiced issues (a process similar to backlooping in reading) and to retain a clear picture – corresponding to the actual image on the board – of the discussion. We can view flipcharting as an example of the ubiquitous presence of written elements even in such a markedly oral process as conflict resolution: a presence dictated by the requirements of literacy in our cultures.
Besides the above functions, a skilful summary incorporates any common concerns that have emerged during a discussion (Kraybill 91). By emphasizing these common concerns the mediator provides the parties with a springboard for potential advancements and agreements. For instance, in a conflict between a tenant and a landlord over the rent, both sides may become more flexible in their demands if they discover they share an interest in securing a long-term lease. It is often the job of the mediator to discern the shared interest among the otherwise conflicting statements and to highlight it during the summarizing stage.
Reflection and digging
Just as communication is not limited to language, active listening does not restrict itself to words. The acknowledgement of the feelings that a speaker is experiencing (called reflection by L. Lantieri and J. Patti (70)) can be at least as powerful an evidence of our attention and earnest endeavor to understand his situation as paraphrasing is. By identifying the underlying emotions we demonstrate we have listened beyond the words and at the same time can help the speaker come to grips with these emotions (ibid.). When we say, “You sound frustrated”, we in effect relieve the other from some of the frustration: identifying a feeling reduces its power and consequently makes the mediation process run more smoothly and constructively (Kraybill 102). On the other hand, ignoring feelings is almost certain to alienate a party from the mediator; it creates an impression of inadequate understanding that will hinder any later attempts at bringing the discussion to a deeper level. Of course, the same effect can be produced if we identify the other’s emotions incorrectly (for instance, mistaking anger for frustration in the example above), so we should ask for feedback about the accuracy of our interpretation (Lantieri & Patti 70). As with clarifying questions, giving the other enough time to grasp an emotion or its expression is crucial – of all human experiences, emotions are perhaps the most difficult to put into words. At such moments, we should be particularly wary of the tendency to fill the silence with some remark or push ahead with the discussion (Anstey 186).
L. Barker, K. Wahlers and K. Watson suggest a similar technique called digging which focuses on the emotions of a party without making them the explicit subject of discussion (87). The observation of emotional reactions adds another dimension to the understanding of a side’s position or supplies a proper context for messages. It is particularly useful when there appears to be a discrepancy between the content of a message and the feelings of the speaker (such as affirming the acceptability of a proposal in a constrained voice) because it enables us to explore the speaker’s real attitude toward an issue. In the example above, asking the person whether she sees potential problems in the proposal may reveal important information that she has been withholding and thus avoid a decision that would not be equally satisfactory to all parties.
The need for awareness
“Perhaps the biggest barrier to effective listening,” note R. Weaver and J. Farrel, “ is the unconscious nature of the process.” (139) All active listening techniques discussed so far derive from (and in turn strengthen) our awareness of the nature of communication processes, such as the need for redundancy in spoken language addressed by paraphrasing and summarizing, or the recognition of feelings as a separate channel of information in digging. However, there is another form of awareness that we must achieve in order to become good listeners: the awareness of our inner limitations, of the factors that shape and restrict our perceptions.
General semantics has introduced the concept of unconscious projection to account for the influence of an individual’s experiences, beliefs, purposes and expectations on his or her perceptions (Severin & Tankard 99). H. J. Brown provides an effective summary of the issue: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” (quoted ibid., 100) – or, in the context of listening, hear. While it is impossible to free ourselves completely of the constraints that experiences, values and goals impose on our perceptions (this would require discarding our individuality and memories), we must become aware of their existence and gain control over them before we can learn to listen actively. In other words, we have to make unconscious projection conscious and find out how we can limit it. As M. Anstey puts it, “the more one is in touch with one’s own feelings, attitudes and behaviour, the greater the chance that these will not be allowed to distort understanding” (187). L. Lantieri and Janet Patti go even further to suggest that active listening “requires that we clear a mental and emotional space and allow the speaker to fill that space” (67), that is, that we actually try to eliminate the effects of unconscious projection altogether.
Weaver and Farrel (139-143) and Barker et al (73-5) identify a number of related listening obstacles and offer practical suggestions for their overcoming. An effective way to prevent our values and beliefs from interfering with our listening capacity is to make a list of these beliefs and the ways in which we react if someone challenges them. We can then examine each reaction, learn to recognize its manifestations early on and consequently moderate it. The list thus helps us maintain a greater degree of objectivity and openness at all times. The same approach can be adopted with the already mentioned triggers: phrases, such as “Well done!” or “bigot”, that provoke positive or negative feelings in us and divert our attention from the discussion to these feelings. By preparing a list of such phrases we are less likely to be affected by them in the future. We may try to rationalize our reactions or dispense with them entirely: they are a product of conditioning and have no objective justification in reality (Barker et al 74); like our distinction between pleasant and unpleasant smells, positive or negative responses to words are learnt, not inborn.
I shall conclude this section with an observation by Barker: “Many of [the suggestions here] could be classified as pure common sense. They are ideas about which you probably said, ‘Everyone knows that!’ – and you were right. The key to improving listening behavior is to be sensitive to what you are doing while listening.” (75) Likewise, the key to gaining awareness of our listening limitations is to recognize the need for awareness.
We have seen that the techniques of active listening identify common problems in oral communication and offer practical approaches to their resolution, just as conflict resolution itself seeks to provide practical means to deal with conflicts. However, gaining an understanding of the other and building a feeling of trust are not simply prerequisites for a successful outcome of the negotiation; they have the power to change the attitudes and the relationships of all participants in the negotiation process. Lantieri and Patti call active listening, in its most profound sense, “listening with the heart” (67): a conscious effort to liberate ourselves from the beliefs and experiences that shape our perception of the world and to immerse ourselves in the thoughts and feelings of the other. The process of active listening thus transcends both the barriers that separate groups or individuals from other groups or individuals and the barriers that exist within each of us. It becomes a process of personal transformation; and it is in this sense that active listening produces its most long-lasting effect.
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[i] Adopting the definitions in Haslam (390), this essay distinguishes between mediation as a conflict resolution process that is facilitated by an external party (the mediator), and negotiation, in which the opposing sides try to resolve their conflict directly (without the involvement of a mediator).
[ii] This discussion of short- and long-term memory is based on Kowalski (142).