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Correcting Misunderstandings

BY ELISABETH SEAMAN

Co-Author of "Conflict The Unexpected Gift"

Recently, my friend Amy told me she was very anxious about a situation in her life, in which she had become very upset with another person. She explained the situation and wanted to know whether I agreed with her assessment of the other person’s behavior. As I began giving her my views, she kept interrupting me and telling me I didn’t understand her at all. Our conversation soon turned into an impasse—she was angry and I was frustrated.

What might I have done differently? I think that after Amy had asked me for my views about the behavior of the other person, I could have wondered to myself whether she truly wanted to hear my views or whether she was simply expecting me to listen to her. I could have listened to her in greater depth and later have checked with her as to whether I had heard and fully understood the facts about what she told me and how she was feeling. In the end, I might have learned that she really wasn’t interested in hearing my views, after all. Rather, she simply needed to have someone listen to her deeply so she could evaluate on her own whether her assessment of the other person’s behavior was accurate.

As we state in the chapter on Listening, in our book Conflict – The Unexpected Gift, we want to communicate with others in such a way that helps us reach a deeper level of understanding of what their underlying needs are. Many factors come into play in listening besides hearing the words being spoken. What tone is my friend using? What feelings is she expressing with her body language, with her eyes, with the level of her voice? Is there fear, yearning, despair, hunger to be understood? What do these indicators tell me about what is going on with her at a deep level?

I might have asked Amy, “I sense you weren’t only upset by what the other person said to you, but you were also fearful of getting further negative reactions from her. Is that so?” Amy might have agreed with my comments and perhaps added that she felt the other person had treated her unfairly. Her answer could have led to additional clarifying questions on my part: “What were your fears all about and in what ways was the other person being unfair to you?” Questions like these might have resulted in Amy realizing that I’m listening to more than her words, giving my best effort to put myself in her shoes, and seeking to understand better how the behavior of the other person had impacted her emotionally.

A day or two later, when I again spoke with Amy, I apologized for the way I’d responded to her when she had spoken to me earlier. I told her that if she were to talk with me again about the situation she’d brought up, I would make every effort to listen to her more carefully. I told her I would do my best to do so without making any judgments, suggestions or placing blame.

Later on, when we did talk, I asked her open-ended questions that she wasn’t able to answer with just one word, such as “yes” or “tomorrow”, but rather questions that invited her to give me more thoughtful and expansive answers. In the end, Amy and I were able to understand each other better than we had before, and to enhance our relationship with each other.

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