Active Listening as Conflict Resolution

In the book Solving Tough Problems Adam Kahane lays out a methodology for dealing with tough problems in the most difficult situations.  Kahane played an integral role in the Mount Fleur Process which brought together representatives from Apartheid-era South Africa. Participants discussed what South Africa would look like after Apartheid. After the Mount Fleur Process, Kahane took part in similar gatherings throughout the world (Follow this link to learn more about Kahane’s work).

Many aspects of the book will be useful to people in their everyday lives, I would like to focus on listening. In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells us that by “becoming genuinely interested in people” and “be[ing] a good listener” are two important roles in building successful relationships. That’s great, but what is listening and how do we do it?

Perhaps you are rolling your eyes at the thought of this silly question, but I have been involved in many frustrating conversations with non-listeners. These “conversations” generally become a waste of time and quickly deteriorate into mindless arguments, with people talking past each other.

Adam Kahane details Otto Scharmer’s Four Ways of Listening:

  1. Downloading – listening from within our own story, but without being conscious that what we are saying and hearing is no more that a story. When we download, we are deaf to other stories; we only hear that which confirms our own story. This is the kind of nonlistening exhibited by fundamentalists, dictators, experts, and people who are arrogant or angry.
  2. Debating – listening to each other and to ideas (including our own ideas) from the outside, objectively, like a judge in a debate or courtroom.
  3. Reflective Dialogue – listening to ourselves reflectively and listening to others empathetically-listening from the inside, subjectively.
  4. Generative Dialogue – listening not only from within ourselves or from within others, but from the whole system.

According to Kahane and Scharmer, downloading and debating repeat already existing ideas. Nothing new is created. Reflective dialogue and especially generative dialogue can create new social realities. This is intimidating to think about, but can be done quite easily.

The website PersonaDev offers 10 Tips to Be a Better Listener. There are plenty of articles dedicated to active listening, but I think this one is short and to the point. I’m going to provide an excerpt, but I highly recommend the reading article and website.

  1. Be Legitimately Interested: Be interested. Drop whatever you were doing and focus. Stop focusing on the email you were writing or the article you were reading and really listen. Put yourself in the speaker’s place and make his or her problems your own. The speaker will consciously or subconsciously pick up on this and you will learn more from the conversation. However, if you are in the middle of something just a little too important to drop…
  2. Be Honest About Your Time: If you really are in the middle of something important, tell the speaker. Apologize and plan for another meeting where you can ensure your full attention and focus. This will let the speaker know that you appreciate their coming to you and you want to give them your full concentration. It’s much better than lending half-an-ear and not listening well.
  3. Accept the Speaker’s Point-Of-View: At least until he or she is done speaking. Some of us have the desire to get our point across and a word in for every sentence spoken. Even if you disagree with the speaker’s stance on a subject, allow him or her to finish their thought before voicing your disagreement and then only if necessary. Remember, you are trying to be a listener, not partake in a discussion.
  4. Use Body Language, Eye Contact, and Repetition: Using body language and eye contact the right way can really have an impact on the speaker. To show you are listening and interested, lean slightly forward in your chair. Not so much that your elbows are on your knees, but enough so you aren’t reclined back on your chair. Make consistent eye contact, but do not stare. Make noises like “mm-hmm,” or say “I see,” and frequently repeat what was just said. These actions show that you are interested and actively listening.
  5. Go Beyond the Words: Good listeners are actively thinking not just about what was said but also why and how it was said. Why did this person come to you to talk (or be heard). Is there excitement in their voice? Resentment? Jealously? Once you determine the motive of the speaker, can you react more smoothly to their words.
  6. Get Rid of Distractions: Just by slightly closing a door or turning off your monitor you can portray to the speaker that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. Focus.
  7. Avoid Planning Counterarguments: It is a natural response to automatically start planning a counterargument as soon as something is mentioned. As hard as it may seem, don’t. Mentally record your disagreement and formulate a response later after the whole message has been received.
  8. Be Aware of Your History with the Speaker: As a corollary to tip 5, think about how your history with the speaker may affect what is being said. Is there potential for flared feelings? Sympathy? Fear? Figuring this out will help you better understand the speaker’s motives and, thus, respond accordingly.
  9. Ask Questions: If there is something said that is not clear to you, ask for clarification. Be careful not to use questions to rebut or represent your point-of-view. Only ask questions that’ll help your understanding of what the speaker is saying.
  10. Watch and Learn from the “Good Listener”: We all know one or two “Good Listeners”. Next time you are speaking to them, really pay attention to what they do. One can read a ton of articles and not learn as much as they would from actively watching a good listener in action.

Being a good, active listener makes life a lot easier. Your conversations will be more enjoyable and less nuanced. More importantly, your active listening will encourage others to do the same. Whether you are trying to solve a tough problem, perform a group mediation, or plan your weekend, everything will go a lot smoother and more will be accomplished.

The large scale implications are what interest me the most. In our current society, people are quick to call the police if a problem or disagreement arises. A more ideal situation would involve people talking out their issues either by themselves or with a mediator. A lot of conflict can be resolved by listening and understanding the other person’s motivations.

Peer mediation is a common model in elementary and high schools for a reason. . .it works. Children and youth are encouraged to work problems out amongst themselves. A group of youth mediators told me that mediation works and has led to a decrease in violent behavior amongst their peers. Active listening plays and important role in mediation and conflict resolution.


  1. Wonderful summary of a good book Chris. As a prof coach, I see these as coaching strategies. And I have taught my clients these with great successes (and a few not so great ones). Thanks for a great blog post.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I really enjoyed Kahane’s book and am looking forward to reading some of the authors he cites.

      In the coming weeks I will be expanding the article are writing on similar topics.

  2. I ended up at your blog through searching for Kahane on Twitter. After having read Solving Tough Problems and also Synchronicity by Joseph Jaworski, we decided to start up an organization that promotes this approach of dialogue to help solve the more complex social problems in our world. If you’re interested please have a look at our website perspectivity dot org.

  3. You are so right! Too many people don’t have a clue how to listen effectively. There is another good book on the market that effectively teaches HOW to become a reflective listener. It’s called “Please Listen to Me!” by author Dick Fetzer. Find it on amazon or barnes&noble sites or from the publisher at

  4. for me, it’s not so much knowing and/or applying the 10 points (they are almost just plain common sense), but more of a desire to use them. i will often use the 10 points, then switch back to ‘downloading’ and then back again, depending on the day, my mood, and a million other factors. others, i’ve noticed, only use downloading. however, i think we should not define people into one of the categories. there are alot of social factors that discourage the use of good listening skills (tv is a prominent one). i know i don’t want to be mistakenly thought of as “always a good listener” or “always downloading.”

    i think one thing people can do is to simply point out to others who are (not at the moment) using the 10 points, that maybe they need a minute to breathe and to try another approach, to give them the benefit of the doubt, and a chance to shift into another mode of listening.

  5. So true Chris. I notice ability to be in the moment seems related to levels of anxiety. Anxiety can be caused by a strong commitment to a particular outcome, post abuse syndrome (particularly for those having experienced a lot of bullying as management style behaviors), and the general power dynamics. Breathing is always helpful and insights into expectations and outcomes helps one stand in process/listening.

    At my best in difficult situations I imagine the anger is passing through me and not stopping on or in me. That allows me to breath and give the other person a chance to vent.

  6. I used to be a volunteer at a telephone crisis center and I’ve thought a lot about “listening”. I’ve written about it here:
    At it’s best, I think the art of listening consists of a host of skills that can be used to encourage someone to talk about their passions/frustrations/troubles. I believe the skills involved and the process itself have not always been described in a clear manner. That’s why there is so much confusion about how to “listen”.

  7. […] The model of the truth and reconcillation commission is a good example of this, as well as the active listening techniques for conflict resolution. In Occupy Richmond, workshops were used to simultaneously deescalate hostilities while promoting […]

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