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.

Culture Crash

Culture Crash
Chris Lempa
Black Oak Presents
Autumn 2008

Culture Crash

“Culture generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Cultures can be “understood as systems of symbols and meanings that even their creators contest, that lack fixed boundaries, that are constantly in flux, and that interact and compete with one another.”

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the art.”

-Wikipedia, the anarchistic online encyclopedia

My goal in this short space is not to define culture or debate its merits. Rather, I will use the broad quote provided in the epigraph as a launching pad to discuss where the dominant culture has led us (negative) and where we can take it (positive). A close associate often reminds me that it is important to define my terms. With that in mind, I will provide the following definition for dominant culture

“Whereas traditional societies can be characterized by a high consistency of cultural traits and customs, modern societies are often a conglomeration of different, often competing, cultures and subcultures. In such a situation of diversity, a dominant culture is one that is able, through economic or political power, to impose its values, language, and ways of behaving on a subordinate culture or cultures. This may be achieved through legal or political suppression of other sets of values and patterns of behaviour, or by monopolizing the media of communication. (A Dictionary of Sociology 1998, originally published by Oxford University Press 1998.)”

There are many signs that the dominant culture is failing.  A quick glance at the Earth Policy Institute’s Eco-Economy Indicators warns that world grain stocks are falling, the world fish catch has hit it’s limits, and that the world’s water resources face mounting pressures. The website for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has a section dedicated to failed banks. There have been  38 bank failures since October 1, 2000.  The Worldwatch Institute has a great program called Vital Signs Online, and their section on Fossil Fuels notes that,

“North America and Asia remain the world’s leading oil users, at 25.3 million barrels and 21.4 million barrels a day in 2006, respectively. The United States drained 20.7 million barrels of oil daily—24 percent of the global total. Yet U.S. gasoline use dropped by about 1 percent from the previous year as consumers reacted to higher prices. Other top consumers include Europe at 16.1 million barrels daily, China at 7.2 million barrels a day, and the Middle East at 6.5 million barrels daily. (Fossil Fuel Use Up Again, May 6, 2008)”

All of the trends are disturbing, but what does this have to do with culture, not to mention a culture crash?

Each of the referenced indicators noted “patterns of human activity” and “symbolic structures”  that are unsustainable. As the Water Resources Indicator notes, “rivers are running dry, lakes are disappearing, and water tables are dropping,” but unfortunately that doesn’t deter the University of Arizona’s Turfgrass Research, Education, and Extension (TREE) from finding better, more “efficient” ways to irrigate the desert. A webpage titled “Keeping Desert Golf Courses Green” notes that TREE is working on testing “heat-hardy grasses that thrive on salty water and only need irrigation every two weeks.”

Shifting to the governmental and financial realm, Doug French outlines the FDIC’s role in failed banks by reviewing Irvine H. Sprague’s Bailout: An Insider’s Account of Bank Failures.  Sprague was a Chairman and Director of the FDIC. While there he witnessed over 374 bank failures. Isn’t it interesting that the FDIC only lists 38 bank failures on their website? Why did they choose October 1, 2000 as a start date?

Vital Signs includes detailed reports outlining the results of various “patterns of human activity,” and instances where the dominant culture is driving us to the brink of extinction, or to a morbid wasteland are many. This may excite the Rapture crowd, but it should be scary to any rational, thinking being. Jesus isn’t going to make all of the believers disappear.  If, however, He were, what is the point of turning the planet into a wasteland before He comes? Unfortunately, that’s what is happening

Obesity is on the rise. Suicide rates are high. More people are on anti-depressants or psychotropics. The pharmaceutical industrial complex is developing new drugs and then developing new diagnoses to go with them (research the connection between Ritalin and ADHD/ADD). Potable water sources are being depleted so people can golf in the desert. Food is being turned into gasoline.

In many different aspects of life – from bank failures to overfishing to water depletion – the dominant culture is failing. The worldwide monetary system is in a state of flux while the US mortgage crisis has spread throughout the world. All the while our “leaders” are saying that we might be facing a recession. Unfortunately, the solutions are always the same: tax cuts, more technology, clean power, or make do without.

Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If that’s the case, then it should be clear that the dominant culture is insane. But what can we do?

The good thing about living in the heart of the empire is that even small changes can have a large impact. The important thing is that we do something. The Back to the Land movement in the 1970s encouraged many people to live simpler lives. Many people are looking to recreate this movement. That’s a great start. Buy Local and Fair Trade Campaigns also have a huge impact. With that being said, I propose to take it further.

In an earlier article, I briefly outlined a vision for a more sustainable future. This vision was composed of a serious of autonomous communities freely associating with each other. This is the pure definition of the free market. The interesting economist Murray Rothbard described the free market as, “a summary term for an array of exchanges that take place in society. Each exchange is undertaken as a voluntary agreement between two people or between groups of people represented by agents. These two individuals (or agents) exchange two economic goods, either tangible commodities or nontangible services.”

Samuel Edward Konkin III (a.k.a. SEKIII) broke it down further. In the New Libertarian Manifesto SEKIII explains that, “the Market is the sum of all voluntary human action. If one acts non-coercively, one is part of the Market.” (“Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics,” 1956)

A network of autonomous communities based on free association is the best chance for a sustainable future. I believe it is possible to make this a reality in our lifetime.