In a recent conversation with someone, I talked about the need to have as few expectations as possible when we’re in conflict or challenge and we want to change the tone of a conversation.
‘But we always have an expectation,’ she insisted. ‘That’s why we try to communicate.’
When she posed that question, I realised there’s a difference between intention or invitation, and expectation. We can have a strong intention about wanting to solve a problem or reach a new level of understanding but unless we leave the person an opportunity to respond without getting defensive, things get stuck.
What I meant by not having expectations is that we can never know how anyone else will respond. In these times of freedom, when we are less bound to each other by culture or tradition, or even by ‘good manners’ and we each have our own highly individualised experience of the world, we simply can’t know what to expect when we communicate with someone else. If we are a change-maker keen to deepen conversations so that we can address complex problems, then we have to become very skilled at listening. I’m a beginner, but I’m always trying to get better. In fact, as the Zen Buddhists would have it, beginner’s mind is part of what we need.
The more we’re in conflict, the more our communication partner may retreat into their own side of the story. We become able to listen only out of our own perspective, or purely defensively when we’re first in crisis. Otto Scharmer calls these levels of listening ‘downloading’ and ‘factual listening’.
The more distant we are from each other, the more difficult it becomes to create a deeper conversation. When we are speaking with someone in their presence, then we can try something and see how they respond, and then try another more expressive and less expectation-filled way of putting it.
‘I don’t want you to say such insulting things’ he may insist.
‘It wasn’t insulting, it was true!’ she might retort.
He tries again, ‘I felt really hurt when you said I didn’t care for our daughter as much as you did.’
She responds, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you, I was just concerned that you didn’t understand how important it is for us to have a united front.’
This is often where the conversation can begin to shift into new territory. The admission of vulnerability (I felt really hurt) without an accusation (you say such insulting things) may change the dynamic of the conversation to allow in a little more empathic listening.
He might offer, ‘Well, how about we try something new?’
‘Hmm, I don’t know what else we can do,’ she responds.
This sort of admission is a great step. We are all caught up in such strong patterns that we’ve been using for such a long time, even if they stink. Not knowing is an invitation to work it out collaboratively. And to work through our not knowing towards what we do know. I’ll leave our imaginary couple to do that. Maybe not immediately, because it often takes time but if they have enough willingness to listen, or at least someone starts with that willingness then I’m pretty sure that they’ll move somewhere different or at least get some useful information about how exactly they are stuck.
Someone has to make the move in the conversation, and it usually takes a step into some sort of expression from the heart as well as no expectations (in terms of leaving the outcome open) to establish a conversation at what Scharmer calls empathic and generative levels. Unfortunately if you’re the one who has the insight, it’s probably you who has to take the first step into vulnerability as the other person may not know how to do this or have so much fear that you need to take baby steps, choose your timing carefully, be incredibly patient, or probably all of the above.
We also face a big challenge with this in our techno-reliant society. Often when we’re in conflict or difficulty these days, it’s even harder to get a creative conversation going about a difficult topic because we resist face-to-face conversation. (I know this very well as I’m a reforming conflict avoider).
When we speak to someone on the phone, we get a better idea of how they are travelling in response to what we’re saying but we don’t get quite as much feedback from their gestures as we do when we have a conversation in person. Yet when we write to someone as we so often do these days, by text or by email, things can even more quickly go pear-shaped.
We can have a strong intention about what we are doing but unless we can communicate with the ability to listen to the other person’s perspective, then we can get stuck in insults and outrage—just scroll down the comments section in an online newspaper article or a social media post on a controversial topic and you’ll see how quickly we can start swapping outraged opinions in text. It gets scary pretty quickly.
‘But he won’t let me speak to him in person,’ my friend insists.
If we can’t speak in person, then what we need to do is create even more openness in our texts or emails. Even more questions about the other person’s experience before we jump to conclusions. Even more clarity about our own motivations for communicating. We can try more questions, fewer (and preferably no) accusations—accusations always lead to defence. We can offer even more reflections of how they have responded in a previous piece of communication.
‘From your last email, I gathered you were really frustrated by my attempts to get you involved in the class parent’s day at the same time. What do you think would work better? I was hoping we could at least be there around the same time for a little while, so our daughter gets the sense we are both supporting her. What are your thoughts?’
That’s the sort of thing. Of course it’s even harder in 140 characters or less, but acknowledgment of the other person’s perspective and admission of our own motivations and feelings are often the most helpful things we can do to shift a conversation towards what is creative, what is seeking to solve the problem rather than keeping us stuck in defense and offense.
It’s all about listening. In a recent video on the u.lab mooc, Otto Scharmer talked about listening as being the capacity we need most in dealing with conflict or challenge. When applying listening to a complex problem, he used the metaphor of an oxy-torch during welding. A piece of metal looks perfectly solid as the welder persists in applying heat, and then eventually when enough heat has been applied, it suddenly changes shape.
It’s the same, Scharmer says, with listening, keep applying it, and watch as something eventually shifts. But it has to be real listening. The torch won’t work without the heat and light, and listening won’t work if our mind, heart and our intention are not open at least a smidgen.
Make room for listening even in our texts and emails wherever possible. Carry a strong intention and try to drop our expectations of how someone will respond. Use whatever response you get, even the most unwanted one, as data for your next attempt—become an action researcher in listening.
I’d better stop talking and try a bit of intensive listening myself. And if you’re listening to your own crises or challenges, then try a little journalling to hear what your own difficult and challenging self has to say, before you try listening to that other person. Or contact me about coming to a creative listening circle.
Image credit: Karen LaMonte (glass artist) I love this image because it reminds me that we need to be transparent to ourselves before we can receive someone else’s communication…