Isn’t Active Listening Just Another Way to Manipulate People?

leadership skillsFirst, let’s define Active Listening.  Active Listening is a special way of feeding back your understanding of what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening and to check your understanding of his/her meaning.  

Second, before you Active Listen, there are a few things you need to consider so that your Active Listening doesn’t feel phony, forced or….manipulative. 

Here are the conditions:

  1. You need to be feeling accepting of the Sender. If any of the Sender’s behaviors are in the bottom of your Behavior Window, don’t Active Listen. 
  2. You should have a desire to help this person. (Beware of the temptation to simply turn on this interesting technique when cues and clues appear without really caring what happens to the other person and his/her problem.) If you don’t care, it’s really not a good idea to use Active Listening. 
  3. You need to have time enough to do at least a significant amount of listening and be willing to use that time for that purpose. If you don’t, it isn’t fair to open a person up and then say, “Sorry, I’ve gotta go now.”

Okay, let’s get to those questions!

1. Question. Isn’t Active Listening just another tool for manipulating? 

Answer. Any way of responding to another person can be manipulative if the intent of the listener is to cause a particular change. One of the required conditions for appropriate Active Listening is feeling accepting of the other person as s/he is—not needing to change him or her. If this condition is met, and if the listener is really able to assign ownership of the problem to the other, the ensuing Active Listening is unlikely to be manipulative. 

2. Question. Don’t people usually resent Active Listening? 

Answer. Only if the Active Listening is used inappropriately, e.g., when the listener is feeling unaccepting or the sender is not experiencing a problem.

3. Q. Can Active Listening be used in the No Problem Area? 

A. Certainly. Indiscriminate use of Active Listening soon becomes irritating. Also, those who over-use Active Listening tend to become nothing but “mirrors” of others’ thoughts and feelings, seldom contributing any of their own to their relationships. 

4.Q. Isn’t Active Listening really just a way of not getting involved? 

A. Active Listening is a different kind of “involvement.” Rather than getting involved in thinking up and proposing solutions for the other person’s problem, the Active Listener becomes intensely involved in understanding and feeding back the other’s changing, evolving thoughts and feelings about that problem, aiding him or her to grapple with it more successfully.

5. Q. Aren’t some of the Roadblocks riskier than others? 

A. Yes. Orders, Threats, Sarcasm, Ridiculing, and Negative Evaluation are harder to handle than the softer, subtler Roadblocks like Praise, Reassuring, Positive Evaluation, and humorous Avoidance.

6. Q. Can’t Roadblocks ever be used?

A. Certainly. In the No Problem Area, the Roadblocks become part of the normal conversational currency in human interaction. Most of the negative ones (Threats and Criticism) simply don’t come up in the No Problem Area. Others, such as Moralizing, Praising, and Questioning, would probably work better if transformed into I-Message language. But others (Orders, Solutions, Teaching, and Humor) are simply part of daily life. The key points are to avoid all of them when problems arise and to be alert to signs of hurt, fear, or resistance when using them in the No Problem Area.

7. Q. When a group member has a problem, isn’t that always a problem to the leader? Doesn’t the leader always and automatically own all the problems?

A. This question is really a statement that if an employee’s problem could eventually affect job performance, the leader may not be comfortable assigning ownership of the problem to the group member and taking an Active Listening stance.

The key issue in assigning ownership of the problem (and deciding whether to Active Listen or to send an I-Message) is the eminence, probable severity, and objective reality of adverse job performance actually occurring. Unless the danger is imminent, severe, and real, the leader’s best bet (from many points of view) is to keep the group member in charge of the problem and support his/ her attempts to handle it by using Active Listening. Remember, if that fails and unacceptable behavior (lowered job performance) occurs or appears imminent, the leader always retains the option of asserting ownership (or part ownership) of the problem by moving to Confrontive I-Messages.


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