Throughout my career, I have taken training after training in a myriad of subjects, all of which begin with a lesson about ‘active listening.’ This makes sense, as active listening is the foundation on which most of what I do professionally is based. But, I have found these trainings to be quite elementary. To me active listening is easy, and I would feel frustrated at how long they always took.
Finally, the last time I took this training, I learned why I have always found active listening so effortless. I was driving home from San Francisco, frustrated that once again we were spending time teaching people something I found basic, when my younger brother, Sam, called. I was in the car with someone else, so with great guilt (a recurring theme in my relationship with my brother), I rejected the call. And that’s when it hit me: I have been active listening my entire life. Or at least, the part of my life during which my brother has been speaking.
You see, Sam has Down’s syndrome. I hated, HATED, when he spoke and adults would turn to me and say, “What did he say?” Even as a young child, I remember thinking, “He’s speaking English, Dimwit, figure it out!” I felt demeaned for him. I don’t remember this exactly, but I must have instinctively known my translating his words would strip him of his remaining dignity. So, at a very young age, I developed a different way of dealing with this before the obnoxious adult could belittle Sam. I would speak directly to Sam, prefacing my statement with a subtle repetition of what he said. To Sam, it felt like natural conversation. To the third person, it gave him or her a recap of my brother’s words.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t speak with Sam this way, even when no one else was listening. When my kids were younger, I would accidentally call them by Sam’s name. Probably, because I would employ this same tactic when they were first learning to speak. When I began my career, which benefitted from active listening, I started doing this before ever learning I was supposed to.
Once I realized the connection between my brother and my active listening style, I began to notice how often I actively listen. Even more importantly, I have noticed how very important this is.
Listening actively is literally the foundation of every successful negotiation and conflict discussion. If a negotiation is built on a foundation lacking in active listening, the building — the relationship, will eventually show cracks and wear and will tumble. However, if the step of active listening is done well and given the time it needs, the relationship will remain solid. The partnerships built on this foundation will continue to grow and thrive without cracks or wear. When new potential conflicts arise, the parties will be able to negotiate the issues themselves, without an outside facilitator.
My goal in negotiation is to teach the parties not to need me. In order to this, I must teach them active listening. I must inspire them to practice this technique in every arena of their lives. When I check back with students who have successfully learned active listening, they share how much it has helped their marriages, the rearing of their children, their discussions with their older parents. They use active listening to help get their own needs met while respecting the other person in a situation.
When we go back East this year, I look forwarded to explaining to Sam how much of my success comes from him!
To find out more about how I can help your organization in negotiation, please contact me. Please also consider providing yourself and employees the opportunity to learn active listening skills before they are needed in conflict. I am available for workshops and lectures.