Most of us don’t enjoy conflict. The idea of engaging in conflict often feels overwhelming, scary, or discouraging. Part of the reason a lot of us avoid conflict is that we haven’t learned what healthy conflict looks like. Many of us find ourselves in the same unhealthy cycles over and over again, unable to get unstuck or move forward. Often we end up either repeating the same unhealthy behavior in conflict and feeling utter despair and shame as a result, or avoiding conflict altogether and feeling tension and resentment grow beneath the surface. Surely there has to be a better way!
The good news is that there are small changes we can make in how we engage conflict that can make a big difference and truly help us become unstuck in our patterns. One of these involves how we listen. Have you ever been arguing with someone—be it a partner, parent, child, friend—and found yourself feeling offended by something the other person said? Your mind starts racing, forming your rebuttal in defense of whatever accusation you’ve heard or felt from the other person. You may wait as they talk, stewing quietly and forming your response in your mind, or you might interrupt or even explode, unable to hold in your reaction any longer. Whatever you say next, I can almost guarantee the conversation is headed south from this point. The other person will likely respond to you with defensiveness and will probably feel angry, sad, and misunderstood. Why? Because you were listening to respond.
When we listen to respond, we are assuming a defensive posture against the other. Our self-protective tendencies are on high alert. We can easily forget about caring for the other person or for the relationship in the name of being right or defending ourselves. When we respond in a reactionary way, the other person often feels unheard and/or misunderstood. This is because we stopped listening from a posture of wanting to hear and understand them, and instead directed our attention to crafting a response in an effort to self-protect.
If this resonates with you, please don’t be discouraged—there is a way for you to grow in this! It will require you to take some intentional steps to break this habit. Start training yourself to listen to hear. This involves entering the conversation with the intention of staying attuned and attentive to the other’s words. It also involves actively fighting the urge to let our minds race or begin formulating replies when we hear something we don’t like. Instead, choose to stay present in the moment and focus on listening to what the other person says next. When they are done speaking, practice reflecting back to them what you heard. “What I’m hearing you say is ___________. Is that right?” Allow them the chance to correct anything you’ve misheard or misunderstood. Ask clarifying questions if you need to. After they’ve communicated to you that they felt heard and understood, then it’s your turn to respond. You will find that taking the time to listen for understanding has likely softened your reaction and will allow you to respond in a way that promotes healthy repair. You can still share your own feelings and be honest if something that they said felt hurtful. But they will now be listening to you from a place of feeling heard and understood by you, which will allow them to not only feel closer to you, but to hopefully want to reciprocate by listening to you without defensiveness. Listening to respond promotes connection over individual rights; it prioritizes shared empathy and understanding over “winning the argument”. When you listen to respond, you are engaging in healthy conflict that is moving towards repair and growth .