Listen First Conversations - Complete Guide

For an introduction to Listen First Conversations and our Top 10 Tips, click here.

Before a Listen First Conversation...

  • Come with an open mind, ready to learn and grow
  • Let go of your assumptions about the other person
  • Agree on the purpose of the conversation
  • Define the scope, focus, and available topics for the conversation
  • Set time limits for the conversation as well as well as ground rules for speaking turns
  • Agree on a neutral location

In a Listen First Conversation...

  • Listen to others as you want them to listen to you
  • Prioritize respect and understanding
  • Fully listen to and consider others' views before sharing your own
  • Allow others the courtesy of silence while they are speaking
  • Never hijack the speaking turn or interrupt to make your point
  • Be fully present and curious rather than thinking of how to respond
  • Maintain a calm and respectful tone when speaking and a relaxed posture when listening
  • Physically engage free of distractions with eye contact and a relatively neutral expression
  • Be aware of sub-text: facial expressions, tone, body language
  • Restate what you heard to clarify understanding, making sure to use "I" statements (“What I heard you say was” or “The way I understand your position is”)
  • Ask thoughtful and respectful questions, free from judgement, assumption, or bias
  • Seek to discover common interests and areas of agreement by focusing more on why than what, more on personal experiences than positions

After a Listen First Conversation...

  • Share what you learned and gained from the experience
  • Take what you learned into your next conversation while honoring confidentiality 

Although many Listen First Conversations involve topics that all can agree on, any time you talk to others there is a the possibility that areas of disagreement arise. Here is a brief primer on listening during conflict.

Listening and Conflict

As much as we might try, we can’t completely avoid talking about controversial topics. Whether at home, in the workplace, or meeting a friend for coffee, conversations can shift from small talk to talk about serious issues often without us even noticing it happening. It might come as a question, “What do you think about …” or your conversational partner might simply start asserting his or her opinion or repeating something they saw or heard on TV.

When you find yourself confronted with talking about a controversial issue, a natural reaction is to launch into what you believe and why you have landed on that stance. What is natural, however, can often lead to conflict or worse - hurt feelings, damaged relationships, broken homes, and dysfunctional work environments. Remember Tip 5, Listen to and consider others' views before sharing your own!

In order to be in conflict you have to care about something. Ever thought about that? How likely is it that you will spend much time arguing for a position on a topic that you find disinteresting or unimportant to your life? The problem is, however, that we may not have considered what it is that we care about. We care about the topic and find it important, or we may find ourselves with strong opinions, but have we really asked, What is it that I care about? Take a step back and think about those social and political issues that currently define our most tentious debates - gun control, abortion, same-sex marriage, social justice, and taxation. For how many of these have you explored what universal human values are at the core of your opinions? It is not that you don’t have opinions or that your opinions are unfounded, but do you really know what is at the core of your opinions?

Now, think of this from the standpoint of your conversational partner: your conversational partner also may not have asked these questions of him or herself. Taking our Listen First Conversation tips into practice, one of your first moves when having a difficult conversation is to ask your conversational partner what it is they care about! When you hear an opinion expressed or when your partner starts to diving into an emotionally-charged conversation, say something like:

 “I can tell that you care deeply about this. What interested you or drew you to this topic?”

Remember Tip 9, questions demand answers. And answers demand your active attention. If you ask a question you have to be prepared to listen for the answer. Notice that last sentence does not read listen to the answer but listen for the answer. There is a difference. Grammatically, the word "to" is used when you want to express the transfer of something, such as the movement of an object from one point to another. The word “for” is used when something is done to the benefit of something or someone. While you might go to a party, you take a present for someone. Listening for means you are anticipating something, awaiting an opportunity to grow and learn (remember Tip 3). As we discussed in Tip 10, you are attempting to uncover what makes the other person tick, what are his or her core values and what lies at the heart of any opinions expressed.

The point of engaging others in difficult conversations is not to change minds or otherwise win an argument. These motives are ultimately one-sided and often leave both parties feeling misunderstood and frustrated. Instead, your motives should be to understand - to understand where they are coming from, to understand their personal experiences that have led them to their opinions, to understand the issue at hand from as many perspectives as possible.

Of course, it is also possible that your conversational partner is not ready for this type of conversation. Each person needs to honestly answer whether they are ready to (1) be fully open to what everyone has to say and (2) play fair. Being fully open has been addressed above in our 10 Tips to Listen First Conversations. We will end briefly on the idea of playing fair.

First, playing fair means being honest when you answer, What is it that I care about? If you are not fully sure, then say so, and be willing to confront and shifts in your initial stance. If you initially said you care about safety but find yourself expressing opinions that more align with belonging or some other core value, don’t shy away from acknowledging that you are uncertain about the basis of your beliefs.

Second, playing fair means avoiding “kitchen sinking” or throwing all kinds of events or claims at another person even when they are largely irrelevant to the current conversation. If the conversation is about same-sex marriage, don’t turn it into a conversation about women’s role in the church.

Finally, playing fairly means avoiding common logical fallacies, or errors in reasoning, some of the more common of which include:

  • Ad hominen: an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments. "Green Peace's strategies aren't effective because they are all dirty, lazy hippies."
  • Slippery Slope: a conclusion based on the premise that if A happens, then eventually through a series of small steps, through B, C,..., X, Y, Z will happen, too, basically equating A and Z. So, if we don't want Z to occur, A must not be allowed to occur either. "If we impose restrictions on gun ownership because assault weapons are used in mass shootings eventually the government will take away all our guns; so we should not ban assault weapons."
  • Hasty Generalization: a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence; rushing to conclusion before you have all the relevant facts. "I can tell by what you said first that you and I are going to really disagree."



Copyright Listen First Project, 2018