Why Can’t We Listen?

20130916 Stephen SchollIntroducing guest blogger – Stephen Scholl

Stephen G. Scholl is a 40-year veteran civil trial attorney who today helps people resolve business and interpersonal conflict without litigation.  As a Peacemaker, he employs innovative approaches that promote healing and restoration of relationships that have been compromised in legal disputes. To learn more about Peacemaking visit www.solveconflict.com or contact steve@solveconflict.com.

When I’m in conflict with another person, listening is tough.  Voices and tensions escalate as the dispute heats up.  Each of us concludes that the other is tuning out.  What happens?  We keep repeating our positions, hoping that the other side will finally “get it.”  In this pattern, either the conflict will intensify further or issues will get stuffed into inventory.  Inability to listen is a major contributor to the deepening of conflict.

What’s Hard about Listening

Even in normal circumstances we rarely experience the undivided attention of a listener.  Here’s a big reason.  Adults speak at approximately 150 words per minute.  Listeners can absorb information equal to 600 words per minute, or more.  So, our capacity to absorb and process information far exceeds the speaker’s delivery rate.  It’s like multitasking on a computer with a lot of RAM—there is room to run more programs.

We listen on the surface while the mind acts as a virtual home theater packed with distractions.  Maybe it’s the recent fight with a spouse, or the need to stop at the dry cleaners, where to eat lunch, worrying about the bills, or whatever.  We also tend to project our own autobiography onto others who speak.  The mind orchestrates multiple lines of chatter to interfere with listening.

How Conflict Affects Listening

In conflict, we’re even more likely to “go virtual” and tune out.  To the extent we do listen in conflict, we negatively judge and compare what the speaker says.  We plan our reply as we listen.  We listen for what will make us right or the other guy wrong.  Plus, emotions interfere with listening in conflict.

Biology triggers the emotional distraction.  As we spiral deeper into conflict, the body produces emotion chemicals that highjack and overwhelm normal reasoning skills.  Most behavior in conflict is driven by fear-based automatic reaction patterns induced by biochemistry.  These patterns affect us outside of conscious reasoning.  An overlay of fear filters information processing when we are in conflict.  Until the emotion chemicals dissipate, unconscious reactive patterns will create a filter that impairs listening.  We need tools to alleviate this fear-based reactivity.

How to Disrupt the Pattern

How do we break this automatic loop of bio-chemically induced non-listening?  One solution is to create a listening structure.  Psychologist Carl Rogers introduced a listening structure known as “reflection” nearly 60 years ago. In an issue of the Harvard Business Review, Rogers observed that the chief roadblock to effective communication is the listener’s automatic tendency to evaluate and judge what the speaker says. He also observed that:

“When…..someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good……When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to reperceive my world in a new way and go on.  It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens.  How confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.”

Structured Listening

Today, we find structured listening in several communication models such as active listening, empathic listening, deep listening, intentional dialogue, non-violent communication, and the like.  While the formats vary, each model provides a framework whereby a party in conversation may state his own views only after he satisfies the previous speaker that he was understood.  The process generally occurs in three parts, known as mirroring, validating and empathizing.


In mirroring, the listener reflects back what the speaker said, without evaluation.  The listener may either repeat the words or paraphrase the content.  Mirroring is complete when the listener asks, “Did I get it right?” and the speaker confirms with a “Yes.” Listening with a commitment to reflect back requires that the listener access all 600 words per minute of his information processing and absorption capacity—all available RAM.  When we listen with purpose, the background distractions dissipate.  Our internal evaluation “committee” is placed on hold. The virtual home theater is shut down.

Listening in this way produces a higher level of presence, which in turn has a healing impact on the speaker.  It also makes for more accurate communication.  The format clears up misunderstandings by the listener and helps the speaker clarify and/or reconsider fuzzy communication.


In validating, the listener confirms that the speaker is making sense.  To validate how the speaker has processed the experience does not mean we concede content.  Instead, it signals that we allow space for the speaker’s interpretation of reality, given his unique perspective.  There is room to validate and still disagree.


In empathizing, the listener communicates a respectful understanding of the speaker’s feelings. Empathizing helps the listener appreciate another perspective.

When we fully listen in the midst of severe conflict, we affirm our own goodness.  When another listens to us, we feel respected and appreciated.  When we both listen and feel listened to, we connect empathically.  This type of connection will de-escalate conflict so that normal reasoning and problem solving skills can return.

Peacemakers Use Structured Listening

Structured listening is an essential tool in de-escalating conflict and resolving disputes.  It reflects what Stephen Covey identified several years ago as one of the habits of highly effective people:  “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

A new breed of conflict resolution specialist is the Peacemaker.  A Peacemaker acts in a role equivalent to a mediator.  The dispute resolution model used by a Peacemaker employs structured listening and works well in resolving relationship-centered conflict (including legal disputes) in business, family, workplace and community.  A Peacemaker listens actively and, through teaching and coaching, empowers the parties to listen actively to each other.

The next time you see conflict brewing, ramp up your listening efforts to avert further escalation. If it has already boiled out of control and litigation or other adverse consequences may be on the horizon, an expert facilitator may help the parties cool down and seek a mutually acceptable resolution. Especially when the dispute arises out of a business or family relationship, a Peacemaker or other mediator who guides the parties in utilizing structured listening skills can make the difference.

“Nature has given to us one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” ~ Epictetus


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