I lead teams, leaders, and cofounders through difficult conversations. Issues that they’ve left festering for years, elephants so big hardly anything else can fit in the room, and grudges older than the movie ‘the grudge’ are my jam.
You learn a thing or two about how to deal with conflict when you seek it out for a living. And the #1 thing I’ve learned is so simple that I still can’t believe how much like a Jedi Mind Trick it clearly is.
Here it is: Listening and reflecting back on what you heard
I know you think you know this trick.
But you don’t.
Even though it is the most basic communication concept almost anyone has heard, nearly every leader, cofounder, and team I’ve worked with fails to do this.
The result is that people don’t feel heard. And when people don’t feel heard they repeat themselves. They get defensive. They bring meetings to a standstill. They fight back. They get frustrated. THINGS STOP WORKING!!!!
And when I teach my clients (executives, entrepreneurs, team leads, and team members) how to do this AND they actually do it regularly. EVERYTHING GET’S EASIER!!!
So here it is.
Step 1) Listen to what someone is saying.
DO NOT LISTEN TO YOUR INTERPRETATION!!!! You will have judgments, assumptions, feelings, responses, and so much more. Set those aside. Just listen to their words. If taking notes helps, take notes.
I know there’s context and subtext. Your mind will hear those and add them. You don’t need to add extra work to them. Let that be and listen to the words.
Step 2) When they’ve said a good chunk of something, pause them.
What’s a good chunk?
Well, it really depends on your memory, but it’s no more than one subject. If they have a complaint about the sales team and about the customer success team, pause them after the first point of their sales team complaint.
You can do more but really less is better. Again take notes if it helps and it usually does.
Step 3) Reflect back what they said.
NOT YOUR INTERPRETATION OR SUMMARY
“So what I’m hearing you say Brenda is that when John changed his mind quickly about the marketing budget you felt confused and uncertain and weren’t sure how to proceed.”
Repeating is not agreeing.
Repeat it with me now. Repeating is not agreeing.
You can repeat for clarity without agreeing. Trust me. It works.
Step 4) Ask, “Did I get it?”
This gives the person you’re listening to a chance to say yes or no. They might say no even if you said it VERBATIM! That’s because people often don’t really know what they are saying until they’ve said it.
So brush it off and listen again.
Repeat steps 3 and 4 until they say YES you got it!
And very often they will feel incredibly relieved just to have you hear them.
Step 5) Ask “What else?”
Since you paused them they might have more to say. So ask them what else they have to say.
Then go back to steps 1-4 after each chunk you will ask Did I get it? They will say YES!
Ideally, this will go on for 3-4 chunks. If you need you can set a time limit or subject limit for what you can hold (it’s ok to not try to listen to everything at once)
But at some point they’ll say, nope that’s everything.
Then you move on to step six.
Step 6) Summarize and Empathize
Now you’re going to give a brief summary of what you hear and imagine how it felt for them.
Ok so Brenda what I’m hearing is that
You felt frustrated and confused when John changed the budget
You tried to talk to him about it but he didn’t seem receptive
So you tried to fix it on your own but you got stuck.
Is that right?
Yeah, I totally get that. I can see why if you felt confused to start and didn’t feel like you could reach out for support why you’d feel frustrated and unsure. It makes a lot of sense why you’d feel that way.
Here’s the KEY to this step. You don’t have to agree with the facts. All you have to do is say, from the way you saw the world. I understand why you would feel the way you do.
This is a form of validation.
We can argue over facts. Maybe John did respond to Brenda but she missed his message. Maybe the budget was clear but wasn’t communicated well. None of that matters.
Brenda had feelings about all of this. And those feelings are real and valid. When you validate Brenda’s feelings Brenda feels human and appreciated. Any problem you now need to work through becomes easier when people feel this way.
After that, you are ready to move on to step seven.
Step 7) Now Deal with the Challenge or Problem at Hand.
Make a place of action. Make a final decision. Move the ball forward. Come up with a solution that works for everyone involved.
Listening in and of itself may not solve everything, but it creates an incredible foundation of trust for solving things.
When I lead cofounders through this 55% – 60% of the problems seem to vanish. Yes, there are still 40% of the problems left, but they can be worked through.
When I use this with team members that are resisting a decision a company needs to make, they almost always go along with the group on moving forward. And when I have team members do this to their bosses, their bosses almost always become more open to hearing new points of view.
It’s magic because deep down we all want to be seen and loved. It’s cheesy but it’s also fundamentally true. When people feel seen and appreciated they behave more generously and kindly. Making people feel valued is a hallmark of great leadership.
So practice it. Learn to listen and reflect. It’s simple though not always easy but if you learn to do it well I assure you it will become a superpower that you can use almost everywhere you go.