Step 1: LISTEN!

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(Second in a series on “How to LEAD Your Way Through Conflict”)

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 

 –James 1:19-20, NIV

I can not say enough about the importance of LISTENING. In all areas of life. But especially when it comes to dealing with conflict.

In the Scripture from James, notice that there’s an inverse relationship between listening and anger.

-The more listening, the less anger.

-The less listening, the more anger.

And why is anger a problem?  “[B]ecause human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

Is anger always wrong? No.

Is there such a thing as righteous anger? Yes.  (Even Jesus got angry.)

But HUMAN anger –self-centered anger–anger based on fear–anger based on pride – human anger does not lead to the health and wholeness that God desires.

If you and your spouse, or you and your child, or you and your co-worker, or you and your neighbor are having a problem with anger, and you want to get past it, then the absolutely necessary first step is to LISTEN.

Listening turns down the heat. It slows the conversation and prevents it from escalating.

Listening clarifies. A lot of times when we get in arguments, we’re arguing about stuff the other person did not even say!  The other person says “A,” but in my state of non-listening, I hear “B”– and I get angry based on what I heard–not on what the person really said (or was trying to say).

If you want to resolve conflict, here’s the absolutely essential first step:

“Be quick to listen … slow to speak … and slow to become angry.”

How to Listen

There are three steps to good listening, and you can remember them with the acronym EAR:

E = Engage

Pay attention.


Turn off the TV. Close the laptop. Put down the iPad. Silence the phone.

Turn and face the person:

  • Lean forward.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Adopt open body language, which means you don’t create non-verbal barriers by crossing your arms and legs.
  • Nod and say “umm hmm” so the person knows you’re listening

And, for goodness’ sake, don’t be thinking about your rebuttal while the other person is talking! (Way too often what we call “listening” is really just waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can jump in.)

Now you say, “Claude, this is dumb, I know how to do this.”

And that may be, but the fact is, you probably don’t do it!

Studies show that most of us think we’re really good listeners; and yet, most of us only really get about 25% of what we hear

Which means two things:

  1. You’re probably not as good a listener as you think you are
  2. You really have to work to ENGAGE

A = Accept

That means, before you decide that you really don’t like what the other person is saying, EMPATHIZE with what they’re feeling:

  • Don’t cut them off
  • Don’t judge what they’re saying
  • Don’t say, “You shouldn’t feel that way”

Just accept that the person really does feel or believe what they’re saying.

In the listening phase, your goal is not to evaluate but to understand.

Get this straight: Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement. 

Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and values does not mean abandoning your own.


R = Reflect

Say back to the other person in your own words what you heard them say.

Instead of telling them what you think, or judging what they say, simply reflect the feelings you just heard expressed.

This kind of listening OPENS THE DOOR to communication. When you reflect what you hear, one of two things is going to happen:

1- The person will say, “Yes! And…”

2- The person will say, “No, what I really meant was … ”

EITHER WAY, you’ve opened the door to more and better communication.


Listening Structures

Conflict is like a nuclear reaction.

An uncontrolled nuclear reaction is the most destructive force on earth. It’s what we call an atom bomb.

But in a nuclear power plant, the nuclear reaction takes place within a structure, that keeps it under control, and focuses its power in a positive direction.

A listening structure can serve as the “control rods” for the conflict you are dealing with. There are lots of them out there. Here I will briefly mention three…


The Speaker-Listener Technique:

This listening structure was developed for married couples, but it can be used for any one-on-one conflict that is spiraling out of control.

The basic idea is that one person is the speaker. The speaker has the floor.

The other person is the listener. The listener is required to focus completely on what the speaker is saying and paraphrase what they heard.

Here’s the part that you may find silly, but I promise you it really works: A physical object is passed back and forth to designate which partner is the speaker and which one is the listener.

If you are holding the object, you are the speaker. You share one thought at a time, speaking only for yourself.

If you are not holding the object, you are the listener. Your set aside your own thoughts and put all your energy into understanding and paraphrasing what the speaker is saying.

Once the speaker feels heard, the object is passed and the roles are switched.

You can read more about this technique here. You can see it in action here.


Talking Circle:

This is a listening structure for a group of 3 to as many as 30. It works best with an outside (neutral) facilitator, but it some cases it can be used, with great care and sensitivity, by a recognized leader of the group.

The basic idea is to pose a question that everyone in the circle is going to answer, one at a time, while everyone else listens.

Each person in the circle is allowed to speak as long as they need to, without interruption, and without rebuttal. When the speaker is finished, the facilitator paraphrases what the speaker said.

You can read more about this technique here.


Listening Groups:

Listening groups are a technique that I have used to facilitate conflict transformation in a large group, such as a congregation.

Very similar to a focus group, a listening group is a structured conversation, conducted by a trained facilitator with a group of no more than ten people.

Participants are asked open-ended questions (the same for each group) and given the opportunity to share their views with the facilitator while others simply listen without comment.  The facilitator records, compiles and analyzes the responses to each question and then creates a report that is shared with the congregation and/or its leaders.

One goal of listening groups is to give people a safe place to share their feelings (both positive and negative).

Another goal is to uncover the real issues the congregation is dealing with by hearing from a wide range of voices.

If you’d like to learn more about listening groups, contact me using the form below.