Having been a mediator for nearly eleven years, I can’t say that I have seen it all, but I’ve certainly found myself amid plenty of intense conflicts. I’ve sat calmly at a table while people a foot away from me stood screaming into each other’s faces, or pounded on the table hard enough to lift it off the ground. I’ve witnessed people sit silently and then suddenly explode into wild expressions of emotion. Over the years I have observed and learned. I can mostly predict with accuracy when someone is about to escalate, and can point to what triggered the escalation. More importantly, and eminently more useful, I have also learned how to deescalate people. The questions of what makes someone escalate and makes them deescalate can both be answered with another question, “Does that person feel heard?”
My mantra is that people will escalate if they do not feel heard, and will deescalate if they do feel heard. If someone is getting louder, repeating themselves, or using increasingly destructive methods to get their point across, it’s because they don’t feel heard.
Mostly, when we listen, we listen ineffectively. We try to make certain that we understood what has been said, and that we have the facts straight, but the most well-trained listeners fall victim to confirmation bias, where we listen for information that confirms that narrative we have already created in our own minds. We frequently listen ineffectively because we filter out information that doesn’t fit our narrative, and we either narrowly focus on or even add information that confirms what we already believe. Truly effective listening happens in three stages:
1. Loosen your grip on your own story – You must be willing to acknowledge that your own version of what happened, is happening, and will happen might not be the true story, the only story, or the whole story. Stay open to new or missing information, and information that counters what you already believe.
2. Accept the other person’s story as equally true as yours – Rather than trying to assert your version of the facts, or disprove the other person’s story, accept their story as the truth. If someone says, “you disrespected me,” and you believe you did not disrespect them, and it was certainly never your intent to do so, rather than disprove them or argue back, allow their reality to coexist with yours. Allow the possibility that you did disrespect them and then dig deeper into their story. What did you do that they perceived as disrespectful? What impact did their feeling disrespected have? What could have been done differently that would have made them feel more respected?
3. Listen so that the other person feels heard – Pull out key information from what the other person has said, and repeat it back either verbatim or in your own words. Ask yourself, “what do they want me to hear and understand?”
Effective listening is a power tool in deescalating strong emotions, and fostering shared understanding. The next time you find yourself in conflict, follow the three-step process to hone your effective listening and de-escalation skills.
Director of Programs