People need to feel safe to explore their concerns and be assured that they are being genuinely listened to. It is not enough to simply be paying attention, they need to know that the listener is paying attention and understanding what they are saying. This is achieved by using ‘Active Listening’, ‘Empathy’ and the other skills appropriately.
This is a way of understanding what someone tells you by entering their world, seeing things as they see them and communicating your understanding to them so they can see that you understand (or are at least doing your best to do so). This does not include saying, “I understand exactly how you feel.” he skills of Active Listening and Paraphrasing, in particular, can help to show empathy. Also, an acknowledgement of the person’s present emotions, e.g. “I can see that has made you angry” or “I can see how upset you are” or “his is very difficult for you to accept.”
This consists of allowing the person to see signs that the listener is paying proper attention to them. Good eye contact should be maintained, the listener should nod and use frequent minimal prompts (“hmm, yes, I see,” etc.). Body posture should be relaxed and open - perhaps slightly leaning forward and looking alert. Facial expressions should be appropriate and matching the person’s mood.
This involves putting what someone has said briefly in your own words and saying it back to them. It enables you to check your understanding of what they have said and for them to correct you if necessary, but it also allows them to actually hear that you have understood what they are saying. A paraphrase is a very powerful tool in establishing an empathetic relationship. Paraphrases very often begin with the word “so ....”. You do not need to paraphrase everything a person says but an occasional paraphrase, particularly of something important, is very helpful.
Using Open Questions
An open question is one that cannot be answered by a “Yes” or “No”. A closed question is one which can be answered with a “Yes”, “No” or other one word answer. Open questions usually begin with the words: ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘where’ or ‘who’. Try to avoid ‘why’, as it is inclined to make people feel defensive. There are occasions when a closed question is appropriate but generally open questions have the effect of helping people to move on and explore their concerns in more detail.
This means giving a person or group a short summary of what they have said. A summary is longer than a paraphrase and is often used at the end of a session to sum up and pick out themes or particular concerns. It can be used to check that the listener has understood a lot of facts, especially if someone is confused or is confusing the listener. The use of a summary can help the person and the listener to put facts in the right order, reduce confusion and focus on the more important parts of what has been said.
This is not an easy skill, as many of us feel silence is awkward and have to say something to fill it. Silence can often be used to allow an individual or group to reflect for a moment on what they have just said or what they are going to say next and so move the interview on in the direction they wish. Filling the silence with a question can divert them into the listener’s direction. People often have unfocused eyes, perhaps looking downwards when they are marshalling their thoughts.
Individuals may need to be helped to pick out a major concern from a number of concerns so that this can form the focus of the session. Otherwise the session can end up lifting about from subject to subject, possibly avoiding the most important part of the discussion.
This involves picking out a single word or phrase and using exactly the same word or words back to the person with a slight questioning inflection in the voice. he word or phrase reflected should be one with an emotional ‘load’ behind it, and reflecting this back to them will often have the effect of causing them to explore what is behind it, thus moving the interview on.
Challenging / Reality Testing
This is helping someone to see a discrepancy between their perception of what is happening and reality. Sometimes people have a faulty perception of things they did or how others perceive them, and they can be helped to examine the reality by careful questioning. You may ask them, for example, what evidence there is to support their negative view. The aim is to help them see things from a different perspective. Often a challenge will help a person to see an unused resource that they have (a ‘challenge to strengths’). Or, you may point out a discrepancy between what they are saying and their body language (they may be telling you an awful story and smiling!).
Other challenging questions could include:
- I am not sure how that is relevant. Could you explain how it is?
- You say (xxxxxx) several tim Could you give examples? When and where? How often?
- When you say “all the time” what do you mean?
- How is that related to the conflict?
Dealing with Anger
This can be very difficult and your own response to someone else’s anger will be affected by how anger was dealt with in your own family and upbringing.
For example, if you were frightened as a child by angry outbursts you are likely to feel frightened when someone is angry. If your family sometimes shouted at each other and then forgot it and moved on, you are likely to feel reasonably comfortable with anger. If anger was seldom expressed in your family you are likely to feel confused and inadequate.
There are some things you can and cannot do when confronted by an angry person that may help to calm things down. It does not help to try to defend yourself or the company, to get into an argument or become angry yourself. It may help to break eye contact. Two people both refusing to drop their eyes is very confrontational. It is also likely to make the situation worse if you are confrontational, invade the other person’s body space or give them a verbal trigger that escalates the difficulty.
Use the skills described above in allowing the person to express their anger and acknowledging how they feel. Ask open questions to try to find out exactly what it is they are angry about. Tell them you are sorry that they are feeling like that and, if there is something that has been done to contribute to how they are feeling, an expression of genuine regret will help. It also helps if you can agree with any part of what they are saying and acknowledge that this is how things seem to be at the moment.