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Active Listening vs. Effective Listening

Written by Tim Christol

Making changes through effective listening requires crisis negotiators to consider a new approach from what we have tried in the past when communicating with those people in crisis. Effective listening requires us to combine three primary components of negotiation to identify the true motives of those in crisis and to successfully resolve many of these critical events without further injury to those involved.

Consider how active and reflective listening skills, empathetic listening and the concept of “the three components of you” may be applied to create a technique of effecting change through negotiation.

Skills-Based Training
 

Active and reflective listening are the fundamental skills to which every crisis negotiator was first introduced. These skills are the basis for most types of communication they will utilize from that point forward. Whether you were introduced to active listening, reflective listening or a combination of the two, they are simply skills that must be practiced and incorporated into our daily communication patterns for use during those critical events such as negotiating with a barricaded or suicidal person. While they have long been considered the meat and potatoes for the negotiator during most any crisis situation, today we must learn to move beyond the skills of simply listening and toward the technique of effecting change.

While these skills have proven time and again to accomplish positive resolution to a situation, there have been many times when these skills alone have left negotiators short of their goals and stymied in understanding the true motivations of the person throughout the crisis, not allowing the negotiator to help to resolve the situation more effectively. By moving beyond the skills of active and reflective listening and applying the techniques of effective listening, negotiators may move beyond simply being a “venting agent” to becoming a “change agent.”

To become this agent of change, we must attempt to see things through their eyes, to walk in their shoes or create a mechanism within ourselves to attempt to understand what they are feeling. Only then will we be able to relate to them at a level that will gain their trust and create the opportunity to change their behavior. We must learn to listen empathetically.

Empathetic Listening

Empathy is not a new concept in negotiations. Simply put, empathy is to see through the eyes of another. But as we interact with others, we may unknowingly or unintentionally impose our bias into the situation, filtering everything through our story and reading our biographies into the other people’s situations, distorting our view of their problem or the situation.

Because few of us have ever barricaded ourselves into our homes, had the police surround the house, evacuate our neighbors, and spread our problems to the entire city via the bullhorn or the media, we can only imagine, or empathize with, the plight of those people when we are working to help them resolve their crises. Empathy is not sympathy. It does not mean that you agree with them or their behavior but that you emotionally and intellectually understand, or are trying to understand, many of the emotions or feelings they are expressing.

Empathetic listening is a character-based approach that encompasses the skills of both active and reflective listening along with our understanding of the techniques, paradigms, and habits that make us who we are as humans. While these character traits set us apart from others who are involved in the situation, we must always be cognizant of the fact that we could unintentionally or unknowingly impose our own bias, beliefs and attitudes into the situation with which we are dealing and may negatively impact or influence the outcome of the event.

To fully understand the empathetic listening component, we must take an in-depth look at each of these three aspects and their potential impact on everyone associated with the negotiation. First, the technique of being human.

As human technologists, we learn to think, relate and feel in order to fully participate in the world in which we live. We use both formal and informal education systems to help us develop the skills and abilities to learn and explore the full capacity of our brains. From street smarts to book smarts, the ability to use our wit and knowledge is fundamental in the survival process. We often equate personal successes or failures with our abilities or inabilities to form and maintain relationships with others.

Through the development of professional, social and intimate relationships, we assess our place in society to use as a foundation in the development of other relationships as well as the development of a firm sense of who we are. Additionally, our ability or inability to express emotions directly impacts the development of these other areas of our lives and helps to create the skills to successfully interact with others.

Paradigms
 
Paradigms are simply the manner in which we view the world. If we assume that we each view the world through a giant telescope, then all of our experiences, education, biases, beliefs and prejudices would be contained within that telescope. As we look at the world through the lens of that telescope, those portions of our lives would act as cloud or filter that ultimately distorts or changes our view. Have you ever noticed how 10 people look at the same abstract painting and get 10 different opinions of what the artist is trying to convey? Each person viewing the work brings his own system for filtering through the things he sees, hears or even feels.

Not only does time and experience fill the inside of the telescope, but often, recent events can have short-term effects on our view by discoloring the lens. Very positive events occurring in our lives may give the effect of seeing through rose-colored glasses while experiencing a variety of negative events may give us a very dark and gray outlook on the world. While this view of the world made everything appear cheery and happy or very gray and bleak, the end result of these false distortions may lead to unnecessary heartache and pain.

While we will never change the filters that people apply to their lens, we can work to help them consider how these filters affect or distort their views, and we can work to change those distortions as they may affect the crisis with which they are dealing at the time.

Aristotle said, “We ARE what we repeatedly DO. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” It has been said that it requires 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to develop “muscle memory” or a subconscious response to an external stimuli. While we know that our brain is the only part of our body that has the ability to retain memory, the consistent application and practice of these active listening skills allows us the ability to incorporate them into our daily communication patterns and ensure that they are available to us during critical negotiation processes.

Listening Empathetically
 

When others are talking, we are generally listening at one of five levels: Ignoring (not listening at all), pretending (yeah, right, uh-huh), selective listening (only hearing certain parts, or “red flag listening”), attentive (focused on the message), or empathetic listening (listening with the intent to understand). At any given time during a typical negotiation, we are generally using one or more of these listening styles.

We may be ignoring the suspect altogether as he spikes to a rant or pretending to listen when we are concentrating on many of the “coaching tips” being provided by the various coaches and others insisting that they can do your job better than you.

Often during long and drawn out conversations, we may find ourselves selective listening only for certain things that “jump out at us” and dismissing the rest of the information. One of the dangers of that type of listening is that we begin to only listen for “red flags” and focus only on the negative aspects of the communication. If this style continues too long, we may find ourselves stuck in a rut of negatively focused communication and begin to feel that we are no longer making progress toward a successful resolution with the person in crisis.

Attentive listening is a very effective style for gathering information during critical portions of the communication but is very draining on the negotiator and coaches if it continues for a significant length of time. As we learn to listen empathetically, we listen with the intent to understand things from the manner in which the other person thinks, relates and feels. We must consider things from inside that person’s frame of reference while trying to understand his paradigm and how it affects his view of the world as well as understand how he feels and what emotions he is displaying at that time.

Because empathetic listening is a more complex concept, the application of active and reflective listening skills, along with character-based decision-making applications, must be employed. Negotiators must apply both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously to accomplish this. Left brain processes such as reasoning, logic and abstract thought must be combined with right brain processes such as emotion identification, an understanding of relationships and artistic abilities to create an empathetic concept of the situation of person in crisis in order to more effectively resolve the situation.

Empathetic listening can be broken down into a four step process: First, mimic content, i.e., active or reflective listening skills. Second, rephrase the content, i.e., more effective, analytical, limited brain use. (ALS / RLS, left brain). Third, reflect feelings, i.e., understand the other person’s feelings as well as your own. Fourth, empathize, i.e., rephrase the content and reflect feelings while keeping his paradigm in mind. (right brain).

Effective Listening
 

To this point we have worked to understand the person in crisis and how he thinks, relates and feels. We have employed the concepts of empathetic listening to elicit valuable information from him in an effort to diffuse and resolve the situation. We have reached the point in which we must move to the effective listening concepts in our effort to effect change. To accomplish this, we must further our application of “the three components of you.”

The three components are described as the Logos, which is logic, the reasoning part of your presentation / communications (left brain); Pathos, which is feelings, your empathetic side or the alignment with the emotional thrusts of another’s communication (right / left brain) and Ethos, which is integrity and competency, your personal credibility, or emotional bank account (right brain). As we continue to listen for content meaning and behavior, we must begin to apply these components of who we are and listen with both hemispheres of our brain and all of our senses, in addition to our ears.

As law enforcement officers, we are taught from the first day of the academy that we can never show emotion. As a result, we built an invisible wall around us that we do not allow others to penetrate emotionally or physically. To communicate with someone empathetically, we must be willing to lower the guard somewhat and allow ourselves to feel somewhat vulnerable.

To feel some of the emotion that the person in crisis may be expressing to you provides you the opportunity to create a connection with him. While we must allow ourselves to be open in our attempt to understand, we must not assume that we have been in his position before. Statements such as, “I know exactly how you feel,” and “I went through the exact same thing, let me tell you what I did,” tend to turn others off. They know we don’t know exactly how they feel or exactly what they are experiencing at that moment.

As we consider their communications based on these processes, we begin to look beyond simply labeling the person’s emotions to understand what he may be feeling. In its truest sense, “emotion” is Greek for “to motivate.” If you know what he is feeling, you know what motivates him. If you know what motivates him, you begin to understand what is necessary to diffuse and resolve the crisis before and can begin to develop a course of action to effectively conclude the event.

Satisfied needs do not motivate us whereas unsatisfied needs do motivate people to act or change their behavior. If the air is gone from the room, obtaining air becomes your highest priority. Once air is once again returned to the room, that need is met and other needs rise to a higher priority for satisfaction. Identification of the needs of others is paramount to a successful conclusion of the effective listening process and changing the behavior of the person with whom we are interacting.

As we begin to understand his motivations, we can better understand the appropriate methods to allow him to resolve the situation, save face, regain a degree of control in what he may perceive as a life that is spinning out of control. The person in crisis will begin to work to solve some of his issues, and documentable progress in the negotiation may be noted if he feels that you really do understand, or are at least trying to understand, what he is feeling at that time.

By combining these three major components of active listening / reflective listening skills, empathetic listening and the character-based components that make up a caring and dedicated crisis negotiator, the effective listening concept forms. This allows the negotiation teams to become behavior change agents resulting in the successful resolution of crisis more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

Tim Christol is the assistant chief deputy with the Knox County (Knoxville), TN Sheriff’s Office. He can be reached at tchristol@knoxsheriff.org.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2008

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