Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Active Listening

One of the most valuable soft skills a negotiator or mediator needs is active listening.  It combines focus on the speaker, questions aimed at improving your understanding, confirmation that you've understood the speaker and acknowledgement of the speaker's content and the emotions behind it.  It's both a set of skills and an attitude -- one that values the other party and recognizes that understanding is important but not easy.

At its best, active listening prevents miscommunication and builds trust by showing the other party that you're genuinely interested in their perspective.  It's virtually essential to creating a negotiating environment of mutual problem-solving.

As you practice active listening, however, it's important that you remain honest and that you don't assume your listening skills are getting things right the first time.  Otherwise, instead of seeming genuinely interested you can come across as "managing" the other party and only paying lip-service to their concerns.

Active listening training often includes suggested phrases or questions, like:
"It sounds to me like you're concerned about (thing).  Can you tell me more about that?"
"What specific concerns do you have about my proposal?"
"If I understand you correctly, you want (thing)."

These are useful starting points but relying on them can be a trap if they aren't genuine.  By all means practice suggested questions and phrases but the sooner you learn to adopt them into your own natural conversation the better.  You should also remember that an implicit assumption of active listening is that your initial impressions of the other person's positions and/or emotional state will often be wrong.  That's why active listening involves so much questioning and clarification.

I experienced a perfect example of how not to engage in active listening during an online customer service chat with my Internet provider.  I was having difficulty setting up an email account for one of my daughters; I'd login to my page but when I selected the option to add a new email address the page would go back to login.

I explained the problem I was having to the customer service rep, who replied that he would try to help me.  He then said, "I can see how important it is for you to be able to set up this email account for your daughter."

If I'd said something to indicate that this was urgent or important this might have been very good mirroring.  But I hadn't.  Granted, it's reasonable to guess that something a parent does for their child is important to them but by overstating his knowledge he gave the impression of an automatic response:  "I can see how important it is for you to ________ (insert customer issue here)."

By assuming knowledge and then stating it back to me, the rep did the opposite of what he (or his script-writers intended).  It might seem unfair to pick on a customer service rep who is probably just doing what he was told, but I've seen similar "active listening" errors from trained mediators and social workers.  In this case, no harm was done -- I was mildly annoyed but filed it away as an example.  In a more emotionally charged or complex negotiation, however, poor active listening can be costly.  The listener may not only fail to realize that trust has been diminished rather than enhanced but is also likely to think that his original misconception has been confirmed.

Perhaps the single best piece of advice I can give for active listening is to allow for your own error.  Ask rather than state, where possible, and if you're making a statement about the other person's perspective try to keep it open-ended.  "I can imagine that's important to you," empathizes but also gives the other party room to say, "Actually, it's not that big a deal.  What really matters to me is..."

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