Listen up

January 25, 2019

“Why was I not told about this before?” The CFO’s question came with a sharp tone and narrowed eyes. He did not like to be surprised.

The monthly review meeting included the head of finance, the head of sales, and their direct reports. The sales lead, who was new, had just suggested a revised pricing strategy to the combined team. What he had not done was share his thinking with his colleague ahead of the meeting. The air, in what had so far been an effective meeting, immediately chilled.

Conflict in the workplace begins when two people disagree or see things differently. You can feel it. It can be a mild moment of tension. Often, it is divergent perspectives, personalities, or desired outcomes that spark extreme emotion and bad behavior.

When conflict enters a conversation, a meeting, or a culture, it feels painful because it literally changes our brains. Your amygdala, which I call the alarm, has two jobs—to keep you alert and to keep you alive. The moment your alarm fires, and it will fire at even the hint of conflict, you experience a stress response.

Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It prepares you to fight or flee. Any threat, real or perceived, floods your bloodstream with chemicals. Your heart rate rises. Your face can flush. Your palms perspire. Like breathing, this experience is autonomic. You cannot stop it happening.

You can, however, notice it before it gets out of control and you enter the conflict too. To stop the alarm’s signals or at least slow them down, there is a more evolved response than doing battle or running away.

The ultimate answer in every conflict, the habit that changes your brain and the brains of your colleagues in a good way, is mindful listening. Mindful listening is the science of paying attention to the emotion of what a person said blended with the art of proving you appreciated what he truly meant. In conflict, communication skills are not enough. We also need to be the kind of people who value the big, sometimes uncomfortable, energy that comes with clashes at work.

The first step to resolving conflict is simply to notice it is happening. Mindful listening begins with not ignoring the reaction that accompanies conflict conversations. Mindfulness, the awareness that suffering is normal in human experience, was what Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree. It became a practise of intentionally staying in the present, even when it is difficult. It has also become, based on the last decade of neuroscience research, a validated method of shrinking your alarm. People who practise mindfulness every day, research has proven, shrink the reactivity of their stress response.

The reason we need to be mindful of emotion first is that your brain, under stress, is not made to listen. Sensing danger, your brain focuses its energy on getting you out of the present situation. But the moment you notice the feel of the room changing, whether your awareness comes from a change of tone, topic, body language, or an excruciating silence, noticing is all your brain needs to open up the pathways that allow a mature response.

Your alarm, sensing something wrong, is more like a toddler at first. It puts you on the short loop. The short loop pulls any negative memories it can from your hippocampus, your memory center. In a conflict, that means it pulls any past uneasy feelings about the person, real or imagined. It may even pull unpleasant feelings from other times in your life that have nothing to do with this situation. Again, the alarm just wants you safe and it knows conflict might not end well.

When we notice the emotion in the room, mindful that a conflict is happening, we enter the long loop. It is the state of mind where we are in control, even as the circumstances around us may be chaotic. We will not instantly feel better. The conflict is not resolved because we pay attention. What happens internally is that we get access to our frontal lobes, our thinking center. The frontal lobes are the seat of decision-making and predicting the future. It is where intentional thought happens. The long loop is when our alarm, memory center, and thinking center connect.

Under life-threatening stress, we do not want to be on the long loop. If we are in mortal danger, like when a car is about to run us over, we cannot think as it is too slow and it takes too much energy. But in conflict, thinking is exactly what we need to do.

Most people do not think in conflict because they do not notice the emotional change in the conversation, the relationship, or the situation as it happens. They notice too late and get stuck in a stress reaction. But when you do notice, you are in a place, even if you still feel uncomfortable, to do something about the tension or disagreement. On the long loop, you are ready to listen.

Listening is the most powerful tool we have in conflict because it is the starting point of all communication mastery. The person who cannot or is not listening is like a carpenter without wood. You cannot handle the inevitable misunderstandings, different points of view, and true battles for impactful business solutions if you do not grasp the raw material of the back and forth.

The second step of mindful listening in conflict is to gather the complete message another person sends. To do this in tense situations, before you process the information a person expresses, go slow. Recognize their eye contact, body language, and tone. Pause so your brain can translate all the signals it just absorbed. Like a craftsperson considers her materials before creating something beautiful, the leader who goes slow as conflict rises is ready to offer a valuable response. Let all the information sink in before responding.

The third step is to paraphrase the punchline. You just heard someone get emotional and express a point of view. Before you even attempt to rebut the argument, assert your thoughts, or return emotional fire, capture what they said. Not just the words. For instance, the CFO just baited the head of sales. If the CSO says, “You were told about the new structure,” then more conflict. If she says, “This is a sales problem to solve” or “We wanted to come up with a solution to start the conversation”, the CFO will still be reactive. Even the perfect words will fall on stressed ears.

Instead of taking the bait, tell the CFO, “I hear you are frustrated that this feels like new information.” Do not ignore the emotion or the meaning behind what was said. When you paraphrase both the tenor and the message sent, the speaker who created the conflict has to address his reaction. You may have to paraphrase the punchline two, three, or four times. The secret is if you do not fall for the drama and reveal to the room that you see the source of the conflict, they will borrow your focus and calm.

The final step is to agree on process that facilitates listening and leads to solutions. Usually, the trinity of noticing emotion, gathering the full message, and paraphrasing the punchline slows conflict or resets the conversation. But if you try three or four times and tension persists, come up with a process to settle the conflict. If you fall for the debate in the moment, you just lost hours of your life. Instead, agree on a timeline for the conversation, now or in the future. Decide who will facilitate the conversation to keep emotions from going too far. Lastly, if the conflict cannot be resolved through collaborative conversation, designate who has the authority to move the issue forward.

The sales head said, “I hear you are frustrated that this feels like new information.”

The CFO said, “Is this plan already finalized?” He was still triggered.

The sales head replied calmly, “Of course not. This is a starting point to the conversation. After we brainstorm, we will create a process for finalizing numbers.”

“This is not how we work around here,” The CFO asserted again.

The sales head paused. She said, “No problem. We can work on this another time if you would prefer.”

“No.” Back under control the CFO said, “Let’s work on this now.”

Because the sales head mindfully listened to the emotion and the meaning of the CFO’s frustration, she could loan the moment her calm demeanor and flexible approach. Following the four steps, all of us can be the mature leader next time conflict enters our conversations at work.