One of the most effective but counter-intuitive techniques I ever learned for negotiation or for building consensus is to just keep my mouth shut and my mind in neutral.
I was reminded of this critical point as I listened to the latest This American Life podcast, notably the opening segment in which political canvassers learn to change voters’ intentions on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion. The story is really about the incredibly persuasive power of listening, and the resulting sense of connection.
Before going further, it must be said that you can’t always change someone’s mind or achieve agreement simply by listening. Actually, you can’t always achieve agreement, period. But you can achieve mutual understanding, and the latter goes a long way toward making the former possible. The numbers in the research cited in the podcast bear this out. The research also indicates that it’s much harder to shift someone’s opinion or attitude on a subject by sheer force of logic or rhetorical argument. If anything, the reverse may be true; the more someone tries to convince another by piling on facts and figures, the more the recipient entrenches in their own point of view. We selectively screen out information that doesn’t fit our model of the world, or bend them so they do. Agreement becomes even more elusive.
But if you want to soften someone’s stance so they’re at least prepared to entertain your side of the story, they need to feel like they’re being heard. The law of psychological reciprocity demands it. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they also need to feel a fundamental sense of belonging, acceptance, love, and a host of other things that are impossible as long as their beliefs or opinions are being denied, rejected, and negated. So talking, never mind arguing, never works. Listening (especially active listening, a process that involves paraphrasing, checking for understanding, and clarifying) creates empathy.
The sad truth is that most of us seldom really listen. In any conversation, as the saying goes, we’re mainly waiting for our turn to speak. We’re building arguments or counter-arguments; trying to identify loopholes; making judgments; and doing a thousand other things at the speed of thought. In our books (which are really for anyone in the arts, entertainment and creative/media industries and not just for musicians or filmmakers) we analyze the many reasons people find it so hard to actually listen. Unfortunately, our lack of training in proper listening skills is why so many teams are undermined from the get-go, brainstorming sessions are derailed, and collaborations break down. We think we’re listening, but we’re really preparing rebuttals or trying to tell our own story. Or we’re being distracted by social media, noise, or shiny objects (real or metaphorical). Listening is a skill that needs to be honed like any other, but because we’re born with ears that never sleep we think we have a natural gift for it.
What the TAL story demonstrates is that genuinely compassionate, active listening works because it creates a sense that the speaker is truly being heard. Give it a listen.
Originally posted April 28, 2015