Active Listening – the missing ingredient of Leadership


Active Listening – the missing ingredient of Leadership

Conflict, almost by definition, is about power and control. In any conflict, both sides inevitably assume that they are right even when they hold diametrically opposed views.

Whenever there is conflict, the Reptilian brain falls into a repetitive loop (consciously or unconsciously) of two thoughts: “I need control” and “I am right.” And with each repetition, the Reptilian brain digs its claws more deeply into control and being right. As long as the Repltilian brain is engaged in the loop, there is no chance for real resolution of the conflict, regardless of who actually is right or should have any sort of control in a given conflict.

However, a good leader knows how to break the loop and quiet the Reptilian brain in order to create reconciliation and compromise. The method: Active listening.

Active listening is first and foremost a listening to understand (not to respond). When someone senses that they are truly being heard, their Reptilian brain begins to settle down. Consequently, the higher levels of cognitive functioning are made accessible in the Neocortex. It is here in the Neocortex that reason prevails. In essence, active listening makes rational discussion and evaluation possible.

There are five steps to active listening when you find yourself in conflict with another.


(For the purposes of this example, let us assume that we are dealing with a conflict with your colleague over the source of the delay and how to proceed.)

  • Step one: Take a few deep breaths. (Deep breathing calms the flight or fight response)
  • Step two: Calmly ask the other person to explain their position (again). And because some people become even more frustrated when having to repeat themselves, it can helpful to preface by saying something like “I know you have covered some of this before, but it would be helpful to me if you could explain one more time…” There are a few important things happening here: You are signaling to the other person that you are not just digging in; that you are still in problem-solving mode. And if you are still in problem-solving mode, they are invited to be in that frame of mind as well. Remember that problem-solving is one of those higher-level, rational cognitive processes that the Reptilian brain shunts. So you are effectively signalling them that your Reptilian brain is not calling the shots. You are also giving some control over to the other person in allowing them to explain why they think they are right. And their Reptilian brain, recognising the control being given, will instinctively stop feeling threatened and stop pushing their fight or flight responses.
  • Step three: While they are talking, stay fully present in the moment. Remember “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time” (M. Scott Peck). Stay engaged by asking yourself these two questions: 1. What are the primary points the other person is making? 2. What are the points on which we agree? (e.g. we both agree that we are behind schedule)
  • Step four: After the other person has finished speaking, you will want to repeat back to them the shared points of agreement (“We both agree that the program is behind schedule”) followed by a synopsis of their position. (“If I understand you correctly, you feel that the best way to make up time is to…”).
  • Step five: Acknowledge the validity of the points that they are making, those you truly think are valid, and then (and only then) explain your position (“I understand why you feel that [A] is the right course of action. Here are my concerns about that approach…And so this is why I feel that [B] is the right approach. What are your thoughts about my concerns?”

Note that, in the steps and example we are giving, we have not arrived at a particular conclusion and no one has “won” or “lost.” We are not prescribing a particular outcome to the conflict (and that paradigm of “winners and losers” is sometimes unhelpful anyway for approaching conflict). Instead, by conveying that you have heard and understood what the other is saying, you disarm the lizard brain and open up the possibility of rational, higher-level thinking and solutions. Sometimes, when the other person realizes that they have been heard, then you can actually see them physically relax.

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