When conflicts arise in human relationships, emotions often reach a high level and angry feelings are exchanged. During this stage, no one is in the proper mood for constructive problem-solving; they’re too wrapped up in feeling and ca’t do the kind of thinking required for effective problem-solving. This is when Active Listening is very useful—helping people get ther feelings off their chest, paving the way for subsequent problem-solving.
When people are angry or upset, they want it to be known—as if to say, “You must understand how very angry or upset I am before I’m willing to try to solve the problem that made me upset.” Often people want to punish: “Look how angry or upset you’ve made me! Now aren’t you sorry?” Still another reason why people ventilate strong feelings in a conflict is to scare the other person into meeting all their demands: “If I show enough anger and yell loud enough, maybe I’ll get what I want.” This is not unlike a child’s temper tantrum, and, as parents know full well, the best strategy is to wait for the feelings to dissipate.
The following incident, related by an HR director, illustrates how Active Listening can quiet down angry people and pave the way for problem-solving:
“The time it really worked well for me was with the union officers. Their previous style was to come charging in with some complaint, big or little, and make a big thing out of it. If they yelled loud enough, someone in management would give in and try to come up with some perk for them so they would quiet down. After twenty years of that, we were at a point where we’d given away a large percent of what you had to start with. Well, after the L.E.T. I’d get out a pad of paper and say, ‘You’re all really upset, but if you’ll slow down a bit, I’ll write it down here.’ Those meetings had a typical turn—they went on for a period of time with them ranting and raving. And I’d be writing things down and Active Listening back whenever they would say, ‘Such and such supervisor is doing awful stuff and we’re going to have to retaliate with such and such.’ And I’d keep feeding back that they were really upset and I wanted to find out more about it so we could determine if something might be done about it. They would usually quiet down, like it was pouring oil on water, they’d quiet down. And before the meeting was over, they would be very amenable and say things like, ‘OK, we realize that there are problems here that need to be checked out. When can you give us an answer?’ Invariably when they would come back it was on a totally different emotional level, such as ‘Have you found out about such and such?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, here’s what I found out.’ My answers weren’t always positive, and they didn’t always hear what they wanted to hear, but even when they didn’t, they still seemed appeased with the whole situation, feeling like they’d really been heard.”
When people’s emotions run high, we know of no better tool than Active Listening to get them to the point where “they are feeling like they’d really been heard.”