How to hear someone with whom you disagree

Someone was leaving the company. I wasn’t. I felt staying at the company was a good choice (at least for me); the other party disagreed. And I was the one tasked with understanding what was behind their departure. The challenge for me, obvious enough, was how to draw alongside this person, so they could be open, when naturally we were headed in different directions – after all, I wasn’t leaving the company.



“Going a different direction” is worth contrasting with “disagrees with me". Mindful consideration of both expressions reveals the impact language has on our mindset. Pinning the label “disagree” onto someone’s perspective which we are still yet to understand, is like dressing for the snow before checking the weather.


You see, we can disagree with an opinion. Opinions are ‘what you have decided about something’. Trying to understand, or worse, reconcile, different opinions is slow, and the sense of friction off-putting. Friction leads to defensiveness, and a mood that works against either party being truly forthcoming. A defensive mind is a closed mind¹, every time.


In contrast, a perspective is the view one has, which gives rises to opinions. (Other factors also contribute (like personality), however for all but highly subjective issues, perspective is a key player). As soon as we reframe² “your opinion” to “your perspective”, we are honouring the individual, and demonstrating awareness that we see the world differently. Assuming we don’t say it with a dubious tone, we start to embrace the difference by acknowledging, that whatever this thing we ‘disagree about’ may be, it was born in a valid place – it has humanity, and no doubt supported by a complex set of experiences.


If embracing perspective is effectively asking “what is behind this” or “what is supporting this”, then showing up as interested but dispassionate, is effectively saying “I’m here to listen, not to assert”.


Although listening has its many quiet qualities – leaving pauses, focusing on non-verbal communication, silencing the inner voice – (aka the advice monster³), leaning back and relaxing, and a distraction-free environment, there is one quality that good listening has, which is about speaking out. Especially when discussing deep or difficult topics, the speaker will typically bring forth the surface-level and easy parts first. And then stop. A good listener will draw more, potentially with the simple phrase “what else?”


There is always more. There is always something else. We never reveal all in the first salvo. The more courageous and curious the listener, the more times “what else?” can be posed, with an authentic desire to understand. (And trust me, that authentic desire takes an audible quality, that matters a lot to the one of whom you’re inquiring!)




In conversations conducted in this manner – drawing out more deeply what lies behind an “opinion” or “decision” – curiosity will often become self-sustaining. The energy level of both the inquirer and the sharer increase, as they both get a little bit excited at constructing a shared understanding. But note - this isn’t about agreeing, it is about both parties having the same understanding, regarding the position of one of the parties. A lot of goodwill - and a sense of trust and safety⁴ - is born out of this moment, and with the need to protect, defend, or justify her position, the speaker is more enabled and emboldened to simply describe.


As I spoke to my friend who was leaving the company, I approached it the only way I really knew how – as a coach. It turned out there were many topics, not easily broached, that were contributing to the departure. I laid out, up front, that I wasn’t trying to change anyone’s mind – I was just here to the listen. With that context painted in big letters at the beginning, we had a great conversation – I listened, and she was understood. Nobody changed their minds. As someone remaining at the company I did have a far clearer idea what was worth our attention when it came to staff retention in future. The downside (if it was one) – I was more sorry than ever our friend was leaving.





References

  1. Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity Hardcover – February 8, 2022 - Moshe Bar

  2. The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice - 1981 - Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D.

  3. The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever Paperback – February 29, 2020 - Michael Bungay Stainier

  4. ICF Core Competencies - https://coachingfederation.org/credentials-and-standards/core-competencies

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